Government Shutdowns and Their Consequences

With Republicans poised to regain the House and, if the political gods shine upon them, perhaps even the Senate, let’s turn our attention to two intriguing budget-related questions that will soon take center stage in Washington: Will Republicans, like their forebears a generation ago, plant the seeds of both their own destruction and President Obama’s revival?

Will Obama, like his most recent Democratic forebear, seize the opportunity of a GOP overreach, realign himself with the nation’s political center, and effectively portray Republicans as an extremist fringe?

If the graybeards among you are feeling a little déjà vu, I’m not surprised. Day by day, signs are growing that we could witness a repeat of the titanic fiscal struggle that played out after the 1994 mid-term elections, when Republicans won control of both chambers of Congress simultaneously for the first time in 40 years and set out to shove their agenda down the throat of a dazed President Clinton.

Then-incoming House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who had spearheaded the GOP’s electoral success, said that he welcomed a debate with Clinton over the size and scope of government and that he would even bring that debate to a head by blocking federal spending measures and, as a result, shutting down the federal government.

Republicans pushed to balance the budget in seven years, cut income taxes deeply, cut Medicare dramatically, and end the federal entitlement to health care for poor people by turning Medicaid into a block grant for states.

Clinton, who regained his political footing in the early months of 1995, then offered his own plan to balance the budget and focused attention on the details of his compared to the GOP’s. He said that unlike Republicans, he would reach balance without scaling back Medicare and Medicaid radically to finance a tax cut that would disproportionately benefit wealthy Americans. That Republicans had proposed to cut Medicare by $270 billion and cut taxes by the same amount made Clinton’s goal of crystallizing the issue that much easier.

Republicans, however, thought they would get their way. They didn’t think most Americans would miss the federal government if they shut it down. So, they pushed their budget plan, proposed deep cuts in a host of domestic discretionary programs and sent their bills to Clinton, who vetoed them.

But, in the course of a five-day government shutdown in November 1995 and, especially, a three-week shutdown in December and January (both summarized here), and to the great surprise of Republicans, Americans came to appreciate the public services that they were missing – including various health and veterans services, environmental clean-ups, law enforcement hiring, visa and passport processing, and the offerings of national parks, monuments, and museums – and they sided heavily with Clinton.

Republicans eventually relented, their experiment in anti-government radicalism a dismal failure. Clinton, having positioned himself as a budget-balancing centrist, won re-election in 1996 against former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, who never recovered from his association with Gingrich or his role in the shutdowns. For years, Republicans promised they would never make such a mistake again.

Well, “never” suddenly does not seem such a long time off. Fast forward to 2010 and Republican candidates for Congress are once again promising to close federal departments and even to shut down the federal government.

For instance, Alaska’s Senate Republican candidate, Joe Miller, said that Congress must have the “courage to shut down the government” to end federal programs.

Egging on Miller and other GOP candidates is a political force that did not exist in 1995 – conservative bloggers. “I’m almost giddy thinking about a government shutdown next year,” blogger Erick Erickson declared on Twitter. “I cannot wait!”

That proponents of a new shutdown strategy for Republicans include not only Gingrich but Dick Morris, who helped Clinton win the 1995-96 shutdown fight while serving as a Clinton advisor, will make the coming fight between Obama and the next GOP congressional class even more fascinating to watch.

So, Republicans are prepping to pursue the same path that brought them public opprobrium some 15 years ago, encouraged by veterans of the earlier fight who should know better. The question is what Obama will do.

Clinton took the opportunity of GOP radicalism to reclaim the political center – from which he had emerged as a national political figure in the early 1990s and from which he had strayed to a surprising extent during his first two years of presidential governing. That set him up nicely for his 1996 run for re-election.

Obama remains a political mystery, someone who has idealized “post-partisan” consensus while often governing with an eye toward his party’s increasingly strident left-wing base. Whether he seeks a Clintonesque move to the political center, and whether his base will tolerate such repositioning, will help shape what could prove another landmark struggle over fiscal policy and the very nature of government.

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