Newt Gingrich has often relied on short memories of his political career (as I can attest from the shocked reaction I got in 2011 when writing about his well-known history as a Rockefeller Republican), but he’s clearly going too far in pretending the government shutdown he engineered in 1995 was some sort of triumph. Conservative Ramesh Ponnuru slaps him down pretty emphatically today:
Newt Gingrich is telling Republicans not to fear a government shutdown because the last one went so well for them. This is pure revisionist history, and they would be fools to believe him….
Gingrich’s current spin on the events of 1995-96 is just wrong. The election of a Republican Congress in 1994 put government spending on a lower trajectory, as the election of a Republican House did again in 2010. Whether the shutdowns contributed to that result is a different matter.
Almost nobody back then believed it. Democrats thought that they had won the battle over the shutdowns, and that the agreement to end them was a Republican surrender. Clinton made a point, in his next State of the Union address, to criticize Republicans for their strategy. It was an applause line. Clinton’s job-approval numbers started to rise as soon as the shutdown fight was over, and they never really sank again.
Republicans thought they had lost, too. A minority of them thought that they should have kept the government shuttered longer, and that Gingrich and Senate Republican leader Bob Dole had caved. (Gingrich was widely reported at the time to have told unhappy colleagues, “I melt when I’m around him,” referring to Clinton.) Most of them decided that bringing on a shutdown at all was a mistake.
It’s true, as Gingrich now says, that Republicans lost only a few House seats in the next election. But it’s also true that the shutdowns ended what had been called the “Republican revolution” of the mid-1990s. Before the shutdowns, the Republicans had talked about eliminating four cabinet departments. Afterward, they quit….
Gingrich himself accepted the conventional wisdom that his party had lost. That’s what associates of his told me (among others) at the time, and that’s how they recollect it now.
I’d say Ramesh is really pulling his punches here. The rationalization that the GOP “lost only a few seats” reflects some serious amnesia. This was the only time in U.S. history that the party holding the White House for two consecutive terms gained House seats in the second midterm election. It was perceived as a disaster at the time—after all, Gingrich stepped down as Speaker almost immediately—and was largely blamed on Gingrich’s handling of the budget negotiations that led to the shutdown. Ponnuru mentions Clinton’s rising approval ratings after the confrontation with Newt, but here’s what Gallup’s Frank Newport had to say about the saga’s effect on Gingrich’s popularity:
The public appeared to turn particularly strongly against the Speaker after his budget confrontation with Bill Clinton and the resulting U.S. Government shutdown in late 1995. (Publicity at the time, including a famous front page caricature in the New York Daily News, included the allegation that Gingrich had closed down the government because he was given a bad seat at the back of Air Force One when returning from the funeral of Yitzhak Rabin in Israel.) By January of 1996, 57% of Americans said that their image of Gingrich was unfavorable, compared with 37% who had a favorable image of him. This nearly two-to-one negative-to-positive image ratio persisted throughout most of 1996 and 1997.
It’s just bizarre that anyone would take Newt Gingrich’s advice about how to engineer a fiscal confrontation involving a government shutdown threat, and an example of the man’s invincible chutzpah that he’s offering it.
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