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An Obama shutdown scorecard

An impasse between the White House and Congress over government spending has shut down the U.S. government for an indefinite period. The same thing happened in
A barricade leading to the Lincoln Memorial prevents access to tourist buses in Washington
A barricade leading to the Lincoln Memorial prevents access to tourist buses in Washington, October 1, 2013.

An impasse between the White House and Congress over government spending has shut down the U.S. government for an indefinite period. The same thing happened in late 1995 and early 1996. It’s generally agreed that the Democratic White House won its 1995-6 standoffs with the Republican Congress. (The first was Nov. 13-19, 1995; the second was Dec. 15, 1995 to Jan. 6, 1996.) This time out, Barack Obama has a stronger hand in some ways than Bill Clinton had 18 years ago, and a weaker one in others. Mostly, though, Obama’s odds of success look better than Clinton’s did. Let’s review.

1.)  Obama isn’t fighting the entire Congress, as Clinton was. In 1995 and 1996, the House and Senate were both majority Republican. Today, only the House is Republican. That gives Obama an ally (the Senate) that Clinton never had.

2.)  This standoff isn’t happening on the cusp of an election year, as the 1995-6 shutdowns did. That made it harder for either side to back down. Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, usually a conciliatory figure, could not afford to be because he was seeking his party’s nomination to run against Clinton later that year.

3.)   The current shutdown closes more of the government than the 1995-6 shutdowns did, so it will pinch even harder.

Three of the year’s 13 appropriation bills had already been enacted before the Nov. 1995 shutdown, which furloughed 800,000 federal workers. Seven of the 13 had been enacted before the Dec. 1995-Jan. 1996 shutdown, which furloughed 284,000 federal workers (though for a longer spell).

This time out, zero appropriations bills have been enacted, and the number of furloughed employees could easily reach one million. That’s in a civilian federal workforce that’s almost exactly the size it was at the time of the 1995-6 furloughs, even though the U.S. population has increased. (How much it’s increased you’ll have to guess, because the Census Web site has been furloughed, too.) The upshot is that whichever side gets blamed for the current shutdown should logically be reviled more.

4.) The White House’s GOP opposition, then and now, was driven by congressional Republicans’ right flank. But the GOP is much more divided today over whether to shut down the government. Many Republicans are already denouncing the shutdown strategy, and some are openly mocking it. (Rep. Devin Nunes: “It’s kind of an insult to lemmings to call them lemmings.”) Indeed, the current shutdown is the result less of partisan politics than it is of the GOP’s own intraparty warfare.

5.)   On the other hand, the GOP was more divided at the top than it is today. “Dole didn’t like [then-House Speaker Net] Gingrich,” recalls Patrick J. Griffin, who was then White House director for legislative affairs. Dole went along with Gingrich’s shutdown, but didn’t like it. Among other points of contention, Gingrich had called the more moderate Dole “the tax collector for the welfare state.” Dole returned the favor last year by publicly trashing Gingrich during primary season. So, for that matter, did former Majority Leader Dick Armey, whose politics were closer to (but more conservative than) Gingrich’s. Armey had his own tensions with Gingrich at the time of the 1995-6 shutdowns.

By contrast, House Speaker John Boehner gets along reasonably well with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. Boehner’s relationship with Majority Leader Eric Cantor is presumed to be more tense (Cantor, who clearly wants Boehner’s job, frequently sides with the House GOP’s hardliners when they’re in conflict with Boehner.) But the tensions haven’t spilled out in the open as they did between Gingrich and Armey.

6.)   The GOP’s current main demand—that Obamacare’s implementation be delayed to the maximum extent possible—is more obviously extremist than the GOP’s demands were in 1995-6. The Nov. 1995 shutdown occurred because House Republicans wanted to force Clinton to balance the budget within seven years, which Clinton finally agreed to in principle (and achieved within five). The Dec.-Jan shutdown of 1995-6 occurred mainly because the Republicans wanted deeper Medicare cuts than Clinton did. Clinton didn’t agree to that—the impasse was eventually resolved in terms entirely favorable to Clinton—but eventually Democrats and Republicans did agree to significant, deficit-reducing Medicare cuts.

By contrast, the GOP’s demand—really, the GOP’s reactionary wing’s demand—is that Obama dismantle the signature accomplishment of his presidency. Republicans make no pretense that their successive demands are offered in any spirit of improving implementation of the health care law. They state quite openly that they want to eliminate Obamacare, and Obama can’t afford to let them do that. (Nor, for that matter, can the country’s uninsured.)

7.)   The GOP’s government-shutdown politicking is considerably more dangerous to the economy than it was in 1995 and 1996. That’s because, if they lose this game of chicken (and conceivably even if they don’t), Republicans are threatening to play another one with raising the debt limit, which must occur by Oct. 17. Debt-limit threats were made back in 1995 and 1996, too—they’re a staple of American politics—but back then it was understood no one would take the U.S. Treasury to the brink of default.

This time out, the GOP’s right flank has shown itself much more willing to dive over the precipice. Indeed, Boehner himself tried (unsuccessfully) to persuade the hard-liners to not to attach their defund-Obamacare demand to the government shutdown, but to the debt limit, an infinitely more dangerous game. What Boehner didn’t realize was that the hard-liners were willing to do both (and may still be once the shutdown impasse is resolved).

8.)  In the two Clinton-era shutdowns, polls immediately showed that hanging tough benefited the White House and congressional Democrats. On Nov. 19, 1995, for instance, an ABC/Washington Post poll showed 49% thought congressional Republicans were mainly to blame, compared to 34% who thought the White House was mainly to blame (and 13% who thought both sides equally blameworthy). Part of the reason Clinton “won” the 1995-6 shutdowns was that he’d been campaigning aggressively against the GOP’s budget policies for months.

Obama has been more conciliatory at the front end than Clinton was, and initially it looked like that might be costing him; a late-September Pew poll found only slightly more people blamed mainly Republicans (39%) than the Obama administration (36%). But a CNN poll released Monday showed 46% blamed congressional Republicans, compared to 36% who blamed the White House (and 13% who blamed both).

An ABC/Washington Post poll released Monday, when a shutdown was fast becoming certain, found that 41% approved and 50% disapproved of Obama’s handling of the budget standoff, compared to 26% who approved and 63% who disapproved of how congressional Republicans were handling it. Even among those who identified themselves as “very conservative,” only 45% approved of how Republicans were handling it.

And a Quinnipiac poll released Tuesday showed that 72% of Americans opposed shutting down the government over Obamacare, compared to 22% who favored it—even though a slight plurality (47%) continued to oppose Obamacare (as against 45% who favored it). Even when government shutdown was not a consideration, 58% opposed defunding Obamacare, as against 34% who favored it. A 64% majority opposed blocking a debt-limit increase over Obamacare, versus 27% who favored it. Why respondents were more put off by the government shutdown than by a potentially catastrophic default is anybody’s guess. But clearly Republicans are once again losing a game of chicken.

9.)  Boehner may not be the best poker player in the world, but he's far more deft than Gingrich. Most famously, Gingrich made himself look like a crybaby by complaining that President Clinton had seated him in the back of Air Force One on the flight back from Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s funeral. Gingrich’s outburst, first reported during the November 2005 shutdown, wasn’t quite as petty as it seemed, because what he’d really been angry about was a lost opportunity to negotiate over the budget with Clinton, who didn’t want to. (Clinton’s aides had deliberately isolated Gingrich from Clinton on the flight for that reason.) But after the story surfaced, Griffin recalls, “we started playing the crazy card.” Another difficulty Gingrich had was extreme susceptibility to Clinton’s personal charm and the lofty atmospherics of White House meetings—so much so that other Republican leaders tried hard to make sure Gingrich was always accompanied by Armey in bargaining sessions.

Boehner is less easily manipulated by Obama (who in any case lacks Clinton’s gift for manipulation). But he is more easily manipulated, at least for the moment, by his own party’s hard-right flank.

10.)  Extremist conservatives are more insulated from centrist opinion today than they were in 1995 and 1996. Back then, Griffin notes, “you won or lost every day at around 6 o’clock” as the mainstream news outlets weighed in. Today, the news cycle never stops and news venues are more ideological. In January 1996 there was little World Wide Web to speak of, and no Fox News (which launched later in 1996). Today, the Web bristles with highly opinionated news sites, many of the biggest ones conservative, and Fox News gets better ratings than CNN.

Items 1, 2, 4, 6, and 8 make Obama’s job look no harder (and in most cases easier) than Clinton’s was in 1995-6. Items 5, 9, and 10 make Obama’s job look harder than Clinton’s was, and items 3 and 7 could go either way. Add it all up and Obama ought to have an easier time ending the impasse than Clinton did—not least because many Republicans, Boehner included, remember how painfully it ended for them last time.