It has been pointed out a million times that when the government shut down in 1995, Clinton emerged the winner, while Newt and the GOP took a shellacking. But what isn’t discussed at all is why the shutdown was a winner for Dems and a loser for Republicans — and the history has a real bearing on today’s debate.
Specifically, Clinton emerged the winner in that fight over time, because it persuaded him to move away from a strategy of triangulation, and towards confrontation — and it was only after this shift that the public began seeing Clinton as a strong leader. Notably, in another fascinating parallel to the current moment, Clinton’s public esteem grew because he also became more confrontational over Medicare.
A Washington Post article from December 24, 1995, tells the story, and offers a tantalizing glimpse of what might happen in the event of a shutdown this time:
According to the [triangulation] strategy, Clinton was to elevate himself above such conflict, and build a record of legislative and policy achievement, in large part through negotiation, compromise and cooperation with the Republican House and Senate majorities.
In fact, the only time Clinton’s ratings have improved substantially the past year as a result of his actions has been when he adopted a strategy of confrontation, not triangulation.
All through the summer and fall, Clinton’s favorability numbers stagnated in the 46 to 48 percentage point range. The Republican leadership in Congress was pushing ahead on the drive to balance the budget, including substantial reductions in projected Medicare spending. On Oct. 19, the House approved seemingly controversial changes in the Medicare program.
Through Nov. 1, however, Clinton’s numbers did not change.
Only when the battle lines were abruptly drawn — as the federal government was shut down Nov. 14 and Clinton began to turn Medicare into a polarized issue pitting himself and congressional Democrats against the Republican congressional majority — did his poll numbers begin to go up and stay up.
This is why Karl Rove — who knows a little something about painting Democrats as weak and irresolute — is warning Republicans not to pursue a shutdown. Rove notes that the shutdown allowed Clinton to rebound precisely because it got the public to see Clinton as strong, and warns that the same thing could happen for Obama. “President Obama’s ratings as a strong leader have slipped this year,” Rove writes. “Republicans should be careful not to let him recover.”
Obviously there are countless reasons why today’s political moment is different from the mid-1990s. But still, if this fight ends up encouraging a more confrontational approach on Medicare and other matters from Obama and Dems — one that ends up undermining the GOP’s strategy of painting him as weak and indecisive — it would be a pretty extraordinary repeat of history. Even if a shutdown is averted, the history seems instructive.