Not Your Average Shutdown

[SUMMARY] False comparison: Republicans shouldn’t judge today’s shutdown threat by Gingrich’s in the 90s.

I was a twenty-four-year-old legislative aide on Capitol Hill in November 1995.  I remember sitting at my desk in the late Congressman Frank Cremeans’ office in the Longworth House Building waiting anxiously for news.  The Congressman and our Chief-of-Staff had been in a closed-door session with the rest of the relatively new GOP majority.  They eventually strode in with concerned but determined looks.  I was told that Speaker Gingrich had decided to fight, and that meant a government shutdown.

The Speaker believed we should stand on principle.  We needed to make Medicare solvent and work toward balancing the budget as promised. The Speaker was also firmly convinced that slowing the growth of Medicare was no different than what President Clinton had previously supported and that we would call him out as a hypocrite if he really wanted to fight it out in the media. (Clinton later claimed that revenue projections are what changed his mind).

I remember being more than a little nervous at the prospect of Speaker Gingrich trying to outdo President Clinton on national TV, but, regardless, I was in, and there was no turning back.  The federal government “shut down” (and reopened, and shut down, and reopened) several times between November 14, 1995 and January 6, 1996.

The media rallied around President Clinton.  They predicted a near apocalypse.  In the end, the only people outside of Washington, D.C. who even really noticed that the government had “shut down” were those who had planned winter vacations in national parks.  Of course, that didn’t stop ABC, CBS, NBC, and CNN from running coverage of children near tears because a hiking trail was temporarily closed.

The rest is now well known by all political junkies—President Clinton’s poll numbers rose, Speaker Gingrich’s fell, and, thanks to Newt’s hissy fit, we all got to experience the Monica Lewinsky fiasco, the House coup d’état resulting in Speaker Hastert, etc.

This story is often repeated by pundits these days as another Republican House is constantly battling with another Democrat President over spending with a threat of another shutdown looming.

The problem with this story is that it is a bit out-of-context and, therefore, a bit misleading.

First of all, Speaker Gingrich was already in the doghouse.  The media had been beating him like he owed them money since he had taken over the Speaker’s gavel.  It wasn’t “Republicans vs. Democrats” or even “Republicans v. Bill Clinton,” but “Gingrich vs. Clinton.”  The problem with such a scenario is that brilliant as Newt Gingrich is (and I have yet to meet a better read man in my life), he has a naturally dour personality and has never been able to discipline himself to deliver memorable sound bites.  Clinton, on the other hand, was a master of media.  The forty-second president may not have been disciplined behind closed doors, but he was darn near Marine-like in front of a camera.

Second, the issue of the debate was Medicare, and Clinton successfully scared seniors, especially senior men (who had previously voted Republican in 1994) to turn on the GOP. Medicare was popular, and whenever Clinton appeared on camera talking about stopping the “gutting of Medicare,” it polled well for the Democrats.

Yet, despite all of that, Republicans did surprisingly well in the 1996 elections.  Democrats gained only two seats in the House while losing two seats in the U.S. Senate.  Bill Clinton won re-election, but largely because the economy was doing well and Bob Dole reminded too many people of the old man at the end of the street who ran “pesky kids” off his lawn. (He also had a weird habit of talking about himself in the third person more than a hip-hop artist, but I digress.)

My point is that “The 1995-1996 Showdown and Shutdown” is not necessarily applicable to the current context.  The fight is over Obamacare, which is unpopular–not Medicare, which was and is.  The spokesperson on the right is Ted Cruz, who tends to energize conservatives–not Speaker Boehner, who tends to frustrate them (and who, frankly, bores the established media to death).  Yes, the media still demonizes the right and fawns over the left, but their influence is slowly waning (can I get an Amen?).  There wasn’t a Fox News or Drudge Report to back up conservatives back in the dark days of Billary, and the blogosphere had not yet been born.

So I say fight on.  God bless you, Mike Lee, Rand Paul, and Ted “The Cruz Missile.”

Obamacare delenda est!


Featured Columnist - MattMatt Rawlings is an attorney, pastor, former Congressional aide, past music video director and prodigal preacher’s kid. Matt resides in Portsmouth, Ohio with his wife Emily, his son Jackson and his dog Duke (named after John Wayne not the university).  Matt blogs regularly at

All opinions expressed belong solely to their authors and may not be construed as the opinions of other writers or of OCR staff.

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