Newt Gingrich is telling Republicans not to fear a government shutdown because the last one went so well for them. This is pure revisionist history, and they would be fools to believe him.
Some Republicans are urging the party to refuse to back any legislation to keep the government operating unless funding for President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul is stopped. Other Republicans say this tactic will fail, citing the conventional wisdom that the government shutdowns of 1995-96 helped President Bill Clinton and hurt congressional Republicans.
Gingrich is trying to buck up the Republicans who favor this tactic, while reinterpreting an important episode in his career that has usually been taken to be a big mistake. He says the shutdown advanced Republican aims, making it possible to restrain spending and balance the budget.
The former speaker of the House is off message, or rather is revealing a contradiction in the political strategy of his current allies. Their public line is that a shutdown would be the unfortunate product of Democrats’ obstinate refusal to give in to the Republican demand to defund Obamacare. But it’s not easy to convey that message when prominent Republicans are saying that shutdowns are good for their party.
More important, Gingrich’s current spin on the events of 1995-96 is just wrong. The election of a Republican Congress in 1994 put government spending on a lower trajectory, as the election of a Republican House did again in 2010. Whether the shutdowns contributed to that result is a different matter.
Almost nobody back then believed it. Democrats thought that they had won the battle over the shutdowns, and that the agreement to end them was a Republican surrender. Clinton made a point, in his next State of the Union address, to criticize Republicans for their strategy. It was an applause line. Clinton’s job-approval numbers started to rise as soon as the shutdown fight was over, and they never really sank again.
Republicans thought they had lost, too. A minority of them thought that they should have kept the government shuttered longer, and that Gingrich and Senate Republican leader Bob Dole had caved. (Gingrich was widely reported at the time to have told unhappy colleagues, “I melt when I’m around him,” referring to Clinton.) Most of them decided that bringing on a shutdown at all was a mistake.
It’s true, as Gingrich now says, that Republicans lost only a few House seats in the next election. But it’s also true that the shutdowns ended what had been called the “Republican revolution” of the mid-1990s. Before the shutdowns, the Republicans had talked about eliminating four Cabinet departments. Afterward, they quit.
The view that Republicans had been routed was so widely accepted that some of them proposed legislation to prevent a shutdown from ever taking place again. The idea was that if no budget were enacted, the government would just keep going on the previous year’s funding levels. The legislation never went anywhere because Democrats thought the possibility of a repeat performance of the 1995-96 shutdowns gave them leverage.
Gingrich himself accepted the conventional wisdom that his party had lost. That’s what associates of his told me (among others) at the time, and that’s how they recollect it now. The “balanced budget deal” of 1997 included the creation of a new health care entitlement for children, something the Republicans of 1995 would never have accepted but the post-shutdown Republicans were too beat down to resist. The conservative end of the party hated the deal.
And that deal wasn’t the only leftward move the party made in response to Clinton’s victory in the shutdown battle. The rise of the big-government-friendly politics of George W. Bush was another, more consequential one. Gingrich is hoping that today’s partisans of smaller government have forgotten this history, or are too young to have experienced it.
• Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg View columnist, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a senior editor at the National Review.