Government Shutdown Deja Vu

Republicans have forgotten the lessons we learned during the Clinton-era shutdowns.

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Regardless of what you think of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare), the Republican effort to derail it through the government shutdown currently underway is miserably poor politics and even worse public relations.

I tried to resist writing about this topic because the partisans are hopelessly locked into their positions and my opinion on the law isn't of any value to anyone other than my dog, who hangs on my every word. But communications is my business, and I happen to have been a young, Republican congressional chief of staff during the two shutdowns of 1995, and what I see today is worse than what happened then.

The shutdowns of '95 were part of a budget fight between cocky new Republican majorities in both the House and Senate and a stumbling Democratic president who was about to begin his dalliance with Monica Lewinsky. Hardly anyone today remembers that the issue then was about getting the president to agree to a plan to balance the budget over the next seven years. In '95, Newt Gingrich was the first Republican Speaker of the House in half a century, and he had just led a 100-day legislative assault on business as usual that resulted in a series of popular reforms to make government smaller, more responsive and transparent known as the "Contract with America."

[ See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

That summer, Republicans were looking for ways to keep the ball rolling and the prospect of using a government shutdown as a cudgel in this struggle between the legislative and executive branches was already on the table. If the government shuts down, Gingrich told Time magazine, President Clinton "can run the parts of the government that are left, or he can run no government. Which of the two of us do you think worries more about the government not showing up?"

By November, the freshmen Republicans in the House were practically chanting "shut it down" in the hallways. Many of them thought this would be popular back home, almost to the degree that the Contract had been.

First came a brief shutdown for a few days in November. And then, when negotiations with the White House broke down, came a shutdown that began on December 15 and which lasted for 21 days.

Guess what happened? People stopped talking about the need for a plan to balance the budget and began talking about all the government services they couldn't get. Basic services halted. Fears arose about Social Security checks not going out and missing paychecks to members of the military. Thousands of federal workers were forced on furlough days before Christmas.

[ See a collection of political cartoons on the Republican Party.]

Republicans had made a fundamental political error – we shifted the debate from the topic on which we really wanted victory (balancing the budget) to one that not only was off-topic, but reminded people that there actually is a lot about government that they like, want and need. Oh, and we scared and hurt a lot people whose confidence and support we were trying to win.

Does this sound familiar?

Here in Central Florida, the front page of my local newspaper features the story of a couple who have been planning a wedding at the Jefferson Memorial for months. Now their plans are in jeopardy. That's not a story about health care; it's a story about how politicians are screwing up somebody's nice event.

[ See a collection of political cartoons on the tea party.]

A few weeks after the shutdown ended in January 1996, President Clinton masterfully exploited the nation's mood in his State of the Union Address. Near the end of the speech, standing in the well of the House of Representatives, Clinton turned toward the first lady's balcony in a move that has been used by every president since Ronald Reagan, and introduced a special guest:

I want to say a special word now to those who work for our federal government. Today our federal government is 200,000 employees smaller than it was the day I took office as President. (Applause.) Our federal government today is the smallest it has been in 30 years, and it's getting smaller every day. Most of our fellow Americans probably don't know that. And there's a good reason -- a good reason: The remaining federal work force is composed of hard-working Americans who are now working harder and working smarter than ever before to make sure the quality of our services does not decline. (Applause.)

I'd like to give you one example. His name is Richard Dean. He's a 49 year-old Vietnam veteran who's worked for the Social Security Administration for 22 years now. Last year he was hard at work in the Federal Building in Oklahoma City when the blast killed 169 people and brought the rubble down all around him. He reentered that building four times. He saved the lives of three women. He's here with us this evening, and I want to recognize Richard and applaud both his public service and his extraordinary personal heroism. (Applause.)

But Richard Dean's story doesn't end there. This last November, he was forced out of his office when the government shut down. And the second time the government shut down he continued helping Social Security recipients, but he was working without pay.

On behalf of Richard Dean and his family, and all the other people who are out there working every day doing a good job for the American people, I challenge all of you in this Chamber: Never, ever shut the federal government down again. (Applause.)

[ See a collection of political cartoons on the government shutdown.]

Clinton's State of the Union address ended all talk among Republicans that the shutdowns had been successful. 

Around this time, Gingrich was fond of calling for dramatic change by citing the saying that one of the definitions of insanity is to do the same thing over and over again, expecting different results.

What are we to make of this situation now?