The conventional wisdom these days is that the best thing that can happen to turn around President Obama’s political misfortunes is a government shutdown along the lines of what happened the last time Republicans took control of the House of Representatives in 1994. Larry Sabato, one of our top conventional wisdom setters, recently told the Guardian that “Obama should hope he’s lucky enough to get a government shutdown.”
Sabato is right that the 1995 shutdown showdown was a disaster for the Republicans, as Bill Clinton outmaneuvered House Speaker Newt Gingrich and reclaimed the political momentum. He is also right that were things to play out the same way as last time, Obama would certainly benefit. But just as the music scene has changed since the grunge heyday of the mid-1990s, so have things on the political front, and in ways that could make a future showdown on government spending turn out very differently from the last time a first-term Democratic President and a new Republican Speaker clashed.
First, the incoming Republican speaker, John Boehner, is no Newt Gingrich, by his own admission. Boehner was part of the Republican leadership last time around, but he is the only one still in Congress, as Gingrich, Majority Leader Dick Armey, Whip Tom DeLay, and Policy Chairman Chris Cox, have all moved on, and not always to bigger and better things. Boehner, who was jettisoned after the attempted leadership coup against Gingrich in July of 1997, climbed his way back by putting his head down and legislating. After his ouster from the GOP leadership, Boehner went to work as Chairman of the Education and Workforce committee, and focused on scoring legislative accomplishments. This workmanlike approach, coupled with the fact that he witnessed the 1995 disaster first hand, means that he won’t be trapped into making the same kind of tactical and rhetorical mistakes that Clinton goaded Gingrich into making.
Second, the GOP conference is a very different body these days, shaped by a public that is far more skeptical of spending and wary of government debt than Americans were in the mid-1990s. We are now operating in a post-Greece, post-meltdown environment, and the American people understand that spending cannot continue unchecked, and that unmanageable levels of debt will have a significant impact on our economy and our national security. In addition, the GOP caucus that Boehner will lead will be much different from the Gingrich caucus. Like the American people, they have become more skeptical of spending as well, especially the incoming GOP freshmen. As Fred Barnes recently observed, “[m]ost of the 80-plus new members are spending hawks.” If Boehner, aided by reigning Washington budget expert Paul Ryan, offers a credible alternative and a rationale for his actions, he should have both his own caucus and a majority of the country behind him.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the incoming House GOP now has access to a conservative media apparatus that their 1994 counterparts could not have imagined. In 1994, the main conservative outlets were talk radio, the Wall Street Journal editorial page, the National Review, and Commentary. Today, those are joined by a far greater variety of outlets, both print (the Weekly Standard, National Affairs), and on the web (National Review Online, Drudge, Daily Caller, and many more). They also now have a favorable TV outlet in the form of Fox News. As a result, the new House GOP is not limited in getting their message out via the New York Times and the network news. In a crisis, they can tell their side of the story and be assured of a fair hearing in many key outlets, a new capacity that helps keep the mainstream media honest as well.
Add up these three factors and the GOP is in far better shape to survive a budget showdown with a weakened President Obama than Gingrich was in the mid-1990s. This does not mean the GOP would be a lock to win such a face-off, but it does mean that they will now have more than just a fighting chance.