Congressional Republicans are playing with fire when they advocate a government shutdown rather than accept continued funding of President Obama's health care law.
GOP legislators seem to be ignoring the lessons of history – when President Bill Clinton engaged in a prolonged battle with congressional Republicans over a government shutdown nearly two decades ago. Clinton, a Democrat, won that fight in the court of public opinion, as Obama, another Democrat, is likely to do now. Obama is scheduled to make his case again, defending the Affordable Care Act, his signature health care law, in a speech Thursday.
Today's fight isn't exactly like the one Clinton fought against the GOP in the 1990s, but there are important parallels. In 1995, there was no single, overwhelming issue dividing the White House from the GOP, as health care is doing today. But the issues were also economic, reflecting conservative versus liberal philosophy on spending cuts.
House Speaker Newt Gingrich, propelled by Republican majorities in both the House and Senate, insisted on deeper spending cuts than Clinton was willing to make. The GOP forced two shutdowns of the government, the first one in Nov. 1995 and a second one from Dec. 16, 1995, to Jan. 6, 1996. The second shutdown resulted in the furlough of hundreds of thousands of federal workers.
During that time frame, Clinton vetoed two bills that would have raised the debt ceiling but under conditions he wouldn't accept. In the end, a compromise was reached largely on Clinton's terms and he signed a debt ceiling bill in March 1996.
Another factor helping the White House in 1995-96 was that Gingrich seemed arrogant, overly confrontational and out of touch with Middle America.
Elaine Kamarck, a former senior White House adviser during the Clinton years, says, "Members of Congress simply can't capture the attention of the public the way presidents can. And that's why, in the end, President Obama, like presidents before him – Democrat or Republican – will win."
Kamarck, in an analysis for the Brookings Institution web site, adds: "[A]ny President can frame a more coherent message than two hundred plus Congressmen. And if the President is of the 'great communicator' vintage–then so much the better. But the fact is that you don't have to have a silver tongue to get to have transcendent moments–think President Bush on top of the rubble after 9/11."
Ken Walsh covers the White House and politics for U.S. News. He writes the daily blog "Ken Walsh's Washington" for usnews.com and "The Presidency" column for the U.S. News Weekly. He is the author of the new book "Prisoners of the White House: The Isolation of America's Presidents and the Crisis of Leadership." Ken Walsh can be reached at email@example.com and on Facebook and Twitter.