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Who Actually Won During the Last Government Shutdown?

• September 24, 2013 • 12:00 PM

(PHOTO: CLAUDIO DIVIZIO/SHUTTERSTOCK)

It’s mostly the younger members of Congress who are pushing for a shutdown of the federal government this week. Do they need a history lesson about what happened in the winter of 1995-96?

Once again, the federal government is on the brink of a shutdown. As in 1995-96 and 2011, the House of Representatives and the President cannot seem to come to terms about a budget that will keep the government running, and time is running short.

But there are a few new wrinkles this time around. First is that House Republicans have a very specific request—would the President please agree to destroy his premier legislative accomplishment? If so, they’d be happy to provide plenty of funds for everything else. Second is that there is a very public rift among congressional Republicans about whether a government shutdown would be good or bad for their party. This disagreement stems from wildly divergent views about who “won” the lengthy shutdown in the winter of 1995-96.

Molly Ball has an excellent piece on this intra-party struggle, noting that it seems to be conservative activists and younger members of Congress who weren’t around in the mid-’90s who are pushing for a shutdown now. Those who were there at the time seem to regard it as something to be avoided.

Clinton’s approval ratings actually declined somewhat during the shutdown, but they improved markedly several months later. How should we interpret this?

So what actually happened? It wasn’t like there was an official moderator who declared President Clinton the victor. Who really won?

The polling on this matter is not terribly conclusive. As John Sides notes, Clinton’s approval ratings actually declined somewhat during the shutdown, but they improved markedly several months later. How should we interpret this? Did it take the public several months to render a decision about the shutdown, after which they decided in Clinton’s favor? Or did the public quickly forget about the shutdown after it ended and just gave Clinton higher marks thanks to an improving economy in 1996? It’s hard to say.

It does seem, however, that Washington opinion leaders who were there at the time of the last shutdown widely viewed it as a loss for House Republicans. The dominant images emerging from that time were of Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich throwing tantrums and President Clinton standing firm on party governing priorities. Indeed, Charles Krauthammer says the shutdown “marked the end of the Gingrich revolution.” The GOP ultimately acceded to most of Clinton’s budget demands, and as my colleague Peter Hanson is finding in his book research, the memories of that shutdown defined future negotiations between Republican congressional leaders and the White House. Before the shutdown, they thought they could roll Clinton on everything; after, they were scared to cross him.

It may well be that modern political observers are misreading what happened during the mid-’90s shutdown. Perhaps the idea that Clinton “won” is largely perceptual, and that maybe with a more disciplined Speaker than Gingrich (it’s a low bar, but Boehner more than fits the bill), a shakier overall economy, and a President defending policies that are less popular than the ones that Clinton was defending, this round might not obviously go to the White House.

Perhaps. Nonetheless, it still seems like a pretty severe gamble. Obama and the Democrats would have a united message, while the Republicans would have a wide range of messengers with various degrees of commitment to this particular tactic. It won’t be hard to portray the Republicans as having given in to Tea Party extremists who are more obsessed with undoing a law that passed years ago and was upheld by the Supreme Court than with actually getting the government to live within its means.

Seth Masket
Seth Masket is a political scientist at the University of Denver, specializing in political parties, state legislatures, campaigns and elections, and social networks. He is the author of No Middle Ground: How Informal Party Organizations Control Nominations and Polarize Legislatures (University of Michigan Press, 2009). Follow him on Twitter @smotus.

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