But there really is good reason to believe that a 2011 shutdown would backfire against Republicans just like the '95 one did. For one thing, the setup is -- or would be -- awfully similar: a Republican majority in the House with a large, ideologically pure freshman class at its heart that is convinced its midterm election triumph marked a decisive, permanent rejection of a Democratic president and his philosophy.
Gingrich and his House freshmen couldn't fathom a scenario under which the public would turn on them if they demanded that Clinton sign their balanced budget plan. After all, voters didn’t like Clinton and hated deficits: Hadn't that been the combined message of the '94 and '92 elections? Others on the right saw an added opportunity in a shutdown: How many people would realize that their lives were no worse without the government and become converts to the conservative cause? (That same spirit is in evidence today. Just consider blogger Erick Erickson’s recent declaration
, via Twitter, that "I’m almost giddy thinking about a government shutdown next year. I cannot wait!")
But the logic of the electorate tends to be more contradictory than coherent. Sure, voters hate the idea of deficits and love the notion of a balanced budget. But they also like Medicare, which Gingrich’s GOP targeted for cuts in its plan, and are made uncomfortable by anything that seems radical -- like a government shutdown, even if it doesn't personally affect their lives.
This explains why the '95 shutdown was such an instant and enduring loser for the GOP. After a months-long game of chicken and with emergency funding for government operations set to expire, Clinton vetoed a stopgap budget passed by Republicans on Nov. 13, triggering a shutdown the next day. The entire government wasn't closed -- hundreds of thousands of workers were deemed essential and kept on without pay – but National Parks were shuttered, some visa and passport services were halted, and some pension and public assistance programs were also stopped.
It was all necessary, Clinton told Americans, because Republicans had tried "to force us to accept extreme budget measures that would violate our basic values as a nation and undermine the long-term welfare of the American people."
Public opinion immediately favored the White House. A Gallup poll released after the first day of the shutdown found that 49 percent of voters blamed Republicans, while only 26 percent faulted Clinton. By a 48 to 38 percent margin, voters said that protecting Medicare and the social safety net was more important than balancing the budget. And by a 49 to 36 percent margin, they said they trusted Democrats over Republicans to decide which programs to cut in order to balance the budget.
Overall, 48 percent approved of Clinton’s handling of the impasse. For Dole, that number was 32 percent -- and for Gingrich, it was just 22 percent. Notably, Gingrich’s infamous "crybaby
" moment -- in which he groused about being ignored by Clinton on a flight back from Yitzhak Rabin’s funeral earlier that month -- came after this poll was released. In other words, present-day claims that public opinion only turned on the GOP after Gingrich put his foot in his mouth are inaccurate: The public was already against them. By Nov. 20, another Gallup poll pegged Clinton’s approval rating at 53 percent, the highest it had been in nearly two years. Suddenly, the '94 midterm debacle seemed like ancient history.
[B][B]Quickly, Gingrich and the GOP agreed to a stopgap measure to reopen the government, one without the cuts they sought. When that expired in mid-December, another shutdown ensued, this one lasting until Jan. 6. In that time, nearly 300,000 federal workers were furloughed while 480,000 "essential" employees worked for free. Politically, the outcome was no different: The GOP took the brunt of the blame, while Clinton established presidential stature.
"It’s beginning to look like we can't run the government," Marge Roukema, one of the few GOP moderates left in the House, said at the time.
Eventually, a compromise was struck, but Republicans never got their cuts. The episode was a clear triumph for Clinton, who led Dole wire to wire in '96, ultimately winning 379 electoral votes. You’d think this would serve as a cautionary tale to today’s Republicans. But, instead, many of them seem intent on affirming the cliché about what happens to those who don’t bother to learn history