I spent the first 34 years of my life living either inside the Capital Beltway or within easy driving distance of Washington, D.C. So when a political train wreck occurs – one that shakes up the natural order of things in the nation’s capital, such as the current partial shutdown of the federal government – I like to take a step back and consider the psychological toll.
Here’s what I see: the same kind of hysteria that overtakes the town anytime a snowstorm approaches.
Befitting a political system that can’t turn into a skid, Washington is to snow what the fall’s first rain is to Los Angeles: weather it’s not designed to handle. The first word of a few inches of the white stuff covering the National Mall, and Washingtonians flock to their nearest grocery store to hoard cans of tuna, gallon-jugs of milk and 12-packs of toilet paper (seriously, how long are these people expecting to be shut in?).
In the first 24 hours of life without access to national parks and IRS telephone operators, the media’s coverage of the shutdown has that better-stock-up-on-t.p. quality to it. Reports of nonessential government workers forced to go without a paycheck are long on pathos, but short on mention that those same workers will be repaid once the shutdown ends. We have worried tales of a multi-billion dollar hit to the nation’s economy – not that the government hasn’t wasted billions of dollars in other ill-advised efforts (wars, social programs). And there’s the evergreen tale of a looming GOP implosion.
As for the fascination with the novelty of the federal government (or parts of it) grinding to a halt: it’s happened 17 other times since 1976, or double the number of Giants Pandas who’ve dwelled at the Washington National Zoo (speaking of which, shutdown-crazed Republicans apparently even have it in for cuddly pandas, too).
What’s missing from the coverage is historical perspective from the last time this occurred, when Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich butted heads. Which was twice in November 1995 and December-January 1996.
More Than One Bad Guy. You might assume that Gingrich was held alone in public contempt from beginning to end of those shutdowns, which were a running spat over depth and pace of federal spending cuts. Indeed, it started that way. But as the stalemate progressed, Clinton’s approval numbers took a hit (click here to see his poll numbers dip). Clinton won the battle, as Gingrich blinked first, and he won the war later in 1996 when he won a second term – as opposed to Gingrich’s abbreviated speakership. But that may speak more to Clinton’s fabled survival skills and a booming economythan a public rallying to his side over the merits of trimming federal entitlements.
Overplaying a Hand. When that first shutdown began, Gingrich enjoyed the intellectual high ground: paring back government entitlements being an offshoot of the previous year’s Republican landslide. But he soon let his temperament get the better of him. Returning to Washington from the funeral for Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, Gingrichcomplained about being seated in the back of Air Force One, snubbed by Clinton (his carping prompting this famous New York Daily News cry-baby cartoon). Once personality became a subplot (i.e., media distraction), Gingrich never fully recovered. The parallel to 2013? The President has started this shutdown fight as Bill Clinton’s mini-me – Obama griping that Republicans “continue to tie funding of the government to ideological demands”; Clinton in 1995 accusing his foes of putting “ideology ahead of common sense”. Like Clinton, Obama’s probably banking on a disparate band of GOP Visigoths getting off message. The question is: can Obama stay on message, or will he or one of his minions take things a step too far, as did Newt?
Voters Didn’t React. Part of the current narrative has Republicans paying a terrible price for their political excesses – if not an outright party implosion, certainly a backlash in next year’s midterm vote. But a look back at the results from 1996 shows no such public vendetta – perhaps a factor in the GOP’s willingness to push past Monday’s brink. As this studyby Hoover senior fellows David Brady and John Cogan shows, a concerted effort by the left to make the 1996 House races a referendum on Gingrich and conservative overkill didn’t pan out. Perhaps Obama and Democratic special interests will attempt to make 2014 a referendum on the shutdown. Republicans will have to defend their tactics; Democrats will have to defend Obamacare, a decidedly controversial topic outside the beltway. And that may be worse.
How long this impasse lasts is anyone’s guess. We went five days without a fully functioning government in November 1995 and 21 days in shutdown mode the following month.
That second shutdown ended on January 6, 1996, with the government paralyzed for another three days by a winter storm that dumped over 16 inches of snow on the nation’s capital.
You’d expect such panic in wintertime Washington. But not in the fall of the capital’s discontent.
Follow Bill Whalen on Twitter: @hooverwhalen