History is not a good predictor of President Trump. He defies convention in nearly every way. He has flouted most political norms and lived to tell the tale. To apply the lessons of the past to the politics of today is largely a fool’s errand.
That said, there might be something to learn from the government shutdowns of 1995-96 and 2013.
Republicans are in almost the same position that forced them to cave those two times (if not worse). That doesn’t mean they will give in again, but it does suggest that a dire set of circumstances has forced their hand before. To the extent they stick it out, it will be because of one thing: Trump’s stubbornness. And it risks coming at the type of political cost they very clearly feared in the past.
A slew of polls in recent days have shown that Americans blame Trump and the Republicans more than Democrats by between a 20-point margin and a 26-point margin. A Washington Post-ABC News poll showed that 53 percent blame Trump and the GOP, vs. 29 percent for Democrats, a 24-point gap.
That’s remarkably similar to how the numbers looked toward the tail end of the 2013 shutdown. At the time, the same Post-ABC poll showed the exact same split — 53 percent blamed Republicans, while 29 percent blamed President Barack Obama. An NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll had the split at 22 points (53 percent vs. 31 percent).
The last big shutdown before that came in 1995 and early 1996, when the new GOP-led Congress forced a 21-day impasse with a then-wounded President Bill Clinton over how to balance the budget. Post-ABC polling then showed a 23-point split, with 50 percent blaming Republicans vs. 27 percent blaming Clinton. A CBS poll also put the gap at 23 points (51 percent vs. 28 percent).
What happened in each of those shutdowns? Republicans asked for something extra, and they used the shutdown to push for it. Then the American people blamed them for the shutdown — unambiguously — and they gave up.
The 2013 shutdown seemed to be a lost cause from the start, given how massive the demand was: Republicans wanted the Affordable Care Act defunded, which was a much bigger ask than a budget concession or even $5 billion for a U.S.-Mexico border wall. Democrats were never going to scrap Obama’s signature health-care law, but GOP leaders gave Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and the party’s more extreme wing 16 days to try, and then accepted defeat.
Republican leaders also gave the 1995-96 shutdown about three weeks before Senate Republicans caved and (eventually) persuaded then-Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and House Republicans to cave with them. As The Post’s Glenn Kessler wrote at the time:
But last week, it was Gingrich who blinked. The three-week government shutdown had turned into a public relations debacle for increasingly isolated House Republicans. Clinton showed no sign of yielding, and Senate Republicans — led by Clinton’s probable presidential rival Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.) — had already voted to reopen the government without conditions.
The plan passed Friday by Congress, which brings workers back until at least Jan. 26 — but will not give many the funds to do their jobs — in fact is an admission that the strategy was a failure, Republican lawmakers privately admitted.
A survey from Wednesday suggests a similar GOP deficit. A CBS News poll found that 71 percent of people say building a border wall is not worth the current shutdown, while 28 percent say it is. Even as polls have shown that about 4 in 10 people favor a border wall, some of them are clearly unhappy with the cost that comes with trying to make that happen.
The numbers mirrored that in 2013, when an NBC News-WSJ poll asked whether people wanted to continue the shutdown. Although 36 percent favored the concept of defunding the Affordable Care Act, 23 percent wanted to keep the shutdown going for it. Fully 63 percent wanted it to end. Six days later, Republicans gave in to reality.
Republicans will argue that the 2013 shutdown was overblown. They won big in the 2014 midterm election, after all. But that was after a ragged rollout of the health-care law overshadowed whatever people remembered of the shutdown.
The more apt comparison might be to 1995-96, when Republicans were riding high off the 1994 Republican Revolution and trying to assert their dominance over Clinton. They had an ambitious agenda, and they were forcing the issue. But Clinton used the shutdown as a cudgel in his 1996 State of the Union address, which was delivered shortly after the shutdown ended, and the whole mess quickly forced the GOP to abandon some of its boldest proposals. By late 1996, Clinton had sailed to reelection.
That doesn’t mean Republicans will suffer a similar fate if they keep pressing on the current 32-day shutdown; every impasse is different, and there is plenty more time before the 2020 presidential election. But this is clearly the danger zone, and GOP leaders are stuck between supporting their president and worrying about the party’s future. Democrats, meanwhile, have very little reason to give in, seeing as the American people strongly side with them.
The setup is strikingly familiar; the outcome is anybody’s guess.