“The sort of cocktail chatter wisdom in Washington that, ‘Oh, the [1995-96] shutdown was a political disaster for Republicans,’ is not borne out by the data.”
— Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), remarks at Heritage Foundation bloggers briefing, July 30, 2013
Sen. Ted Cruz is pushing for a “last stand” on defunding the new health-care law, a.k.a. Obamacare, by picking a fight that would probably result in a government shutdown. His comment above has earned him some scorn from other Republicans, who do not remember the 1995-96 showdown so fondly.
At the Heritage event, Cruz actually spent about five minutes discussing why the conventional wisdom is wrong. (Go to the 29-minute mark.)
Here are his two key points:
1. A “government shutdown” is a misnomer, as it is simply the temporary suspension of nonessential government services, which, Cruz said, “happens every single week on the weekends.”
2. The consequences were mainly good. He attributed both the emergence of balanced budgets and the passage of welfare reform to “standing up for principle.” While House Republicans lost seats, they kept their majority. Meanwhile, Senate Republicans gained two seats, even as Bill Clinton won reelection.
This is certainly an interesting take on history. As it happens, The Fact Checker had a front row seat to this battle, covering it day after day, and there are a few facts that Cruz is glossing over. We have written previously on this, but perhaps it’s time for a refresher course.
The government shutdown took place in two phases. The first lasted five days in November 1995, until the White House agreed to congressional demands to balance the budget within seven years. But talks on implementing that agreement failed, and the second shutdown lasted 21 days, from Dec. 15, 1995, to Jan. 6., 1996.
The sticking point was the Republicans’ demand that Clinton agree to their version of a balanced budget. In months of negotiations, Clinton had actually given a fair amount of ground, infuriating Democrats on the left. He agreed to a balanced budget over seven years, to tax cuts, to changes in mandatory spending programs such as Medicare. But the two sides remained far apart on the pace of spending cuts — and even farther apart on the policies behind those cuts.
Part of the problem for Republicans is that they did poorly in explaining what they were doing — and why they were doing it — as some 800,000 federal workers were idled. “The communications effort in support of the cuts was not handled particularly cleverly or systematically, much less strategically,” wrote Quin Hillyer, who was spokesman for the House Appropriations Committee at the time. “We were usually flying by the seat of our pants.”
Cruz may no longer remember, but Clinton was in deep political trouble when the Republicans took control of Congress at the start of 1995; he was largely considered irrelevant. The government shutdown is what revived his political fortunes, in part because Republicans appeared too eager for a confrontation, while Clinton constantly emphasized his willingness to compromise within reason. (Cruz appears to be making this same mistake of being too eager for a fight.)
Certainly, as Cruz acknowledges, the public outcry over the shutdown was difficult for Republicans. (He mostly attributes this to Clinton’s superior political skills.) But he glosses over the fact that the shutdown sped Clinton on the path to reelection. Indeed, the shutdown played a role in a rather amazing suckerpunch at the 1996 State of the Union address.
During the speech, Clinton singled out for praise a man seated next to First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton — Social Security Administration worker Richard Dean, who had survived the Oklahoma City bombing and rescued three people from the devastated Murrah Federal Building.
As Republicans stood and applauded Dean’s heroism, Clinton pulled out the knife, recounting how Dean was forced out of his office during the first shutdown and had to work without pay in the second one. “Never, ever, shut the federal government down again,” the president scolded.
(Then-House Minority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) was so upset at Clinton’s gambit that he rewatched the speech on C-SPAN at 1:30 a.m. and literally screamed at the television, according to the 1997 book “Mirage,” by George Hager and Eric Pianin.)
After that, Clinton never lagged in the polls again.
When a balanced-budget agreement was finally reached a couple of years later, it was almost entirely on Clinton’s terms. It is remembered as his achievement, not that of the Republicans who had pressed so hard for it. Moreover, as we have noted before, the balanced budgets that emerged had little to do with that deal — and much more to do with unexpected capital gains revenues because of the boom in technology stocks.
As for welfare reform, there are complicated versions of why it became law after two vetoes by Clinton, but a key factor was that House Republicans realized that the GOP presidential nominee, Sen. Bob Dole, was going to lose to Clinton (in part because Clinton had so effectively tied Dole to the Newt Gingrich-led House). So they modified the bill just enough that Clinton would feel more comfortable signing it — and he did because he was looking for an election-year achievement as well.
Cruz is correct that Republicans retained the House and gained in the Senate. But they lost the big prize — the presidency — that had once appeared in reach after the massive Democratic losses in 1994. We presume that Cruz, mentioned as a possible 2016 candidate, still cares about that.
The Pinocchio Test
From time to time, we have rated politicians on historical accuracy. But this assertion does not easily lend itself to a Pinocchio rating.
Cruz is welcome to his opinion, though he might want to check to see whether he’s wearing rose-colored glasses. There are lessons to be learned from the Republican experience in 1995-96, and he appears in danger of ignoring them. Readers are welcome to offer their assessments in the comments section.
Check out our candidate Pinocchio Tracker