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Defying the Odds

Defying the Odds
New book about the 2016 election.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Shutdowns, Then and Now

For those who don't remember, 1995-96 featured congressional Republicans led by Newt Gingrich taking on Democratic President Bill Clinton. The conventional wisdom now is that Clinton won the political battle over the shutdowns. Some have taken that a step further and believe Gingrich's "defeat" cost Republicans in the 1996 election.
The former is definitely true. Republicans clearly took more blame for the shutdowns 17 years ago. Today, though, the "margin of blame" is 16pt smaller – with Americans surveyed only 3pt more likely to blame congressional Republicans than the president (the margin was 19pt in 1995-96). That suggests that Republicans are much in better shape now than they were then.
He adds, further, that the House GOP did not suffer a long-term hit.
House Democrats gained two seats over their 1994 showing, but that's well within expectations. The result was less of a loss than Republicans went on to suffer in 2008 or 2012, or then Democrats sustained in 1992, for instance. It's equal to the loss Republicans took in 2000. Only once since 1952 has the majority party gained more than three seats in a presidential election year, when the other party controlled the White House.
In short, there's just no clear evidence that House Republicans suffered, even if they were largely blamed for the shutdown.
His analysis overlooks something crucial:  congressional Republicans salvaged the 1996 election by shifting course.  On September 30, 1996, Jessica Lee and Richard Wolf wrote at USA Today:
Rather than settle for failure, Republicans changed course after two damaging government shutdowns and spent much of 1996 writing a legislative legacy that, while short on quantity, is long on quality.

"We reached very far, and we got a great deal," says House Speaker Newt Gingrich, leader of the revolution. "This has been the most successful Congress since 1965-66."

But that success is far different from Republicans' initial hopes. The record of achievement includes several laws sought by Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., a leading liberal.

In terms of scope, only one GOP initiative might compare to the civil rights bills of the 1960s. It ends the 61-year-old guarantee of federal aid to the poor, replacing what Clinton called "welfare as we know it" with 50 distinct state programs.

But Republicans also can claim credit for passing incremental health-care reform, while their Democratic predecessors failed to pass a sweeping overhaul. Among their changes: making health insurance portable from job to job, improving mental-health coverage and requiring insurers to cover 48-hour hospital stays after births.

Six decades of farm policy were rewritten. A mammoth telecommunications bill was freed from gridlock. And when a minimum-wage increase could not be blocked, Republicans added a package of business tax breaks and let it pass.
The Republicans were able to accomplish this shift because President Clinton was willing to deal.  On welfare, both sides acted in narrow self-interest.  Republicans abandoned Bob Dole (who wanted to use welfare reform in the fall campaign) and Clinton abandoned congressional Democrats (who did not want him to give ground to the GOP on the issue).  See Major Garrett's account in The Enduring Revolution.

Does anyone think that such flexibility would be forthcoming this time?