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September 18, 2013 8:49 AM Government Shutdowns: The Big Difference Between 1995 and Now

By Jonathan Bernstein

There’s one important point to make about Speaker Boehner and the Republicans as we approach a possible shutdown: this is very different than 1995-1996. Newt Gingrich, unlike Boehner now, really did believe that Bill Clinton was going to fold; his entire strategy for the year was to play chicken with Clinton, who he mistakenly saw as a weakling.

Newt, too, really was coming off of a stunning electoral victory. Bill Clinton’s approval ratings were fairly similar to where Barack Obama is now, but where we sit in the electoral cycle is totally different, since the most recent election was an Obama-reelection in which Democrats gained seats in both Houses of Congress. In other words, it wasn’t nuts for Republicans to believe that the will of the voters was on their side. It was wrong — but not totally nuts.

Moreover, in 1995 Republicans had an understandable sense that anything was possible — they had done something everyone had told them was impossible. Not just that — but Newt had led them to an electoral victory everyone told them was impossible. In real life, sure, not everyone thought it was impossible, and Newt had very little to do with it, but that they thought otherwise wasn’t nuts….well, I suppose it’s not exactly rational to believe that your leader has magic powers, not to mention that falling for Newt’s snake oil has never been very smart, but it was in a lot of ways a normal (incorrect) reaction to events. In that sense, comparing it to 2010 doesn’t get at it at all; sure, there were some overenthusiastic Democrats who claimed that 2008 was the dawn of a solid Democratic era, but 2010 was far less of a shock than 1994 had been.

Put it all together, and it makes this fall very different from 1995. It still doesn’t mean that we won’t get a shutdown…plenty of factors make it hard to make a deal, even if leaders on both sides want one. But in 1995 Republicans sprinted off the cliff, following and in many cases believing a leader who promised them they could float on air. That’s not where they are this time.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.

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