TCS Daily


Ten Years After the Shutdowns

By Ryan H. Sager - December 7, 2005 12:00 AM

The anniversary of the Gingrich Revolution last year brought on a spate of misty-eyed remembrances among conservatives, reflections on what was and what could have been when the Republican Party took over Congress 10 years ago. A year later, however, we have arrived at the true marking point. This November, December and January mark 10 years since the GOP shut down the federal government not once but twice and, in doing so, brought their own revolution to a dispiriting denouement.

The trouble began almost the second the Republicans took over, when the presumptive speaker-elect began referring to the night's victory as a "revolution." Gingrich's jubilation could be forgiven. He had been working since the late 1970s to bring about Republican control of the House of Representatives -- slaving away when others considered such a dream a delusion -- but the rhetorical excesses would come back to haunt him.

Not right away, of course. Gingrich and the Republican Congress enjoyed quite the honeymoon as they pushed through votes on their Contract With America and Newt held forth at daily press briefings. Clinton, meanwhile, had to recover from the humiliation of a massive rebuke from the voters. Things got so bad for the Man from Hope that at a press conference on April 18, 1995, he was forced lamely to address charges that he was "irrelevant" by declaring that: "The Constitution gives me relevance."

But Clinton was to find his footing the very day after his Constitution-gives-me-relevance embarrassment. On April 19, 1995, Timothy McVeigh blew up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, using a Ryder truck full of fertilizer and motor-racing fuel, killing 168 people. Crass as it may sound, the attack got Clinton back on his game. As in any national crisis, the people rallied around the president, and Clinton's empathetic gifts served him as they always have.

What's more, speaking of crass, Clinton couldn't help but use the Oklahoma City tragedy as a weapon against the Republicans. In a commencement speech at Michigan State University weeks later, Clinton attacked "the militias and all those who believe that the greatest threat to freedom comes from government." He continued: "There is nothing patriotic about hating your country, or pretending that you love your country but despise your government."

Clinton's tactics were ugly, but they worked. For the first time since the election, the Republicans were thrown on the defensive -- and the president's political genius began to shine through. Gingrich and most of the Republican House leadership had been in Washington longer than Clinton, but the truth was that they were amateurs up against a professional. A natural.

As Republicans pushed for a balanced budget going into the fall, they didn't sense the extent to which the public's mood had turned against them. Talk of "reforming" Medicare to help balance the budget put voters on edge, and a nationwide ad campaign masterminded by Dick Morris pushed many voters right over the edge. Still, the Republicans were insistent that if they didn't get their way from Clinton they would shut down the government. Gingrich believed Clinton would take the blame for the shutdown; Majority Leader Dick Armey and others knew full well that the Republican Congress would take the blame. First of all, Democrats are the party of government, and Republicans are the party of hating government. Who would the voters blame? It wasn't a tough question. What's more, Gingrich and House Budget Committee Chairman John Kasich had been running around for months threatening to shut down the government. Clinton was simply not going to take the fall for this.

Nonetheless, Republicans charged full speed ahead. The first shutdown lasted only from November 14 to 19, ending with Republicans accepting a meaningless commitment from Clinton to balance the budget so long as all of his "priorities," like Medicare, were protected. When that agreement fell apart, the Republicans shut down the government again from December 17 to January 6. The second shutdown ended shortly after Bob Dole, realizing that the Republicans couldn't win and eager to get out on the campaign trail, took to the Senate floor to call for the government to be reopened.

And that was that.

For better or worse, it was the end of the Gingrich Revolution. From that point on, the Republicans would play timid, fighting weakly or not at all for their ideals, and Clinton would play bold, co-opting the GOP's most popular issues while dodging bullets like Neo in The Matrix. Less than three weeks after the shutdown ended, Clinton announced in his State of the Union Address that "the era of big government is over." By August, he had ended welfare as we knew it.

The Republicans would get their balanced budget in 1997. But it came as much because of a dot-com-fueled surge in tax revenues as on account of spending discipline imposed by the Congress. And Congress would only prove less and less able to impose such discipline. In 1998, the Republicans would simply hand over $20 billion in extra domestic spending to Clinton so that the words "government shutdown" wouldn't pop up too close to the midterm elections. The Republicans, running an intensely Monica-based campaign, took a huge hit, losing five seats in the House and barely holding onto their majority. Gingrich resigned from Congress days later.

What a fall: from riding into Washington promising "the end of government that is too big, too intrusive, and too easy with the public's money" to cutting deals with Clinton and hoping his intern-related issues would be enough to justify continued Republican rule. Gone were the calls to eliminate unnecessary cabinet departments. Gone was the talk of revolution. Gone was any meaningful commitment to reduce the size of government.

Far more than 1994, the events of 1995 and 1996 have shaped the political reality within which conservatives have lived for the last decade. The Gingrich Revolution brought Republicans power, but the government shutdowns convinced them that they could never use it toward the ends it was originally intended.

Whether they learned the right lesson, then, or simply the easy one, is the lingering question.

Ryan Sager, a member of the editorial board of The New York Post, is writing a book about the future of the Republican Party. He also edits the blog Miscellaneous Objections and can be reached at editor@rhsager.com.

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