We’ve seen this movie before. This time, the role formerly played by Newt Gingrich is covered by John Boehner. Bill Clinton has become Barack Obama.
The script is a little bit different, though. The spending cuts proposed are three times the size of that in 1995, as a percentage of the discretionary budget. The amounts in dollars are, naturally, much larger still. But there are some other key changes this time around.
Boehner has nowhere near the charisma that Gingrich had. The 1994 election was led by Gingrich, and the Georgia Representative had very clear control over the Republican membership in the House. I’m sure dissent existed, but it was never in public, with the 11th Commandment in full force. Today, the Tea Party is fighting with the O part of the GOP over the party priorities, in full view of the public.
On the other side of the aisle, Obama, while a better orator, seems less politically savvy than Bill Clinton. While it’s true that health care reform passed during Obama’s first two years, and homosexuals are now likely to be able to openly serve in the military, Clinton had a more clearly (or perhaps more openly) directive relationship with Democrats in Congress.
Will this mean a different outcome this time? After all, the shutdown of 1995 was during a different time; things change. And Gingrich forever lost what little support he had when he publicly announced that he shut down the government because Clinton had made him sit in the back of Air Force One. One can assume that Boehner, at least, won’t be in such a position to torpedo the effort.
But Gingrich was already on the losing side before his gaffe. The public can be counted on to hate government…until it’s not there. As Joni Mitchell put it, “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.” The sudden disappearance of all “non-essential” government services is far more shocking to witness than is the slow erosion that happens via stepwise decreased funding over time. There is no doubt that the public will be upset by a shutdown. But who will get the blame?
In 1995, Clinton effectively used the bully pulpit to make it clear that it was the Republicans’ unwillingness to pass a continuing resolution that was the ultimate cause. This year, Obama should have a similar upper hand. I’d expect Obama to have a greater advantage in that he has publicly been willing to discuss spending cuts.
In the end, I predict that a shutdown will damage the Republicans again, as it did in 1995. We’ll probably have spending cuts, but they’ll be smaller than what the Tea Party wants, and not as partisan in their targeting.
What I’ll be most interested to see is the impact on the relationship between the two primary factions of the Republican Party. Given that the Tea Party candidates are especially unwilling to compromise, could we find a portion of the Republican Party voting with the Democrats against the Tea Party Caucus members? If nothing else, it could be very entertaining to watch.
If only the stakes weren’t so serious.