A terrified party can do nothing to serve the nation
Spooked GOP needs to exorcise the demons of ‘95 and emulate Newt Gingrich
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From the Atlanta Journal-Constitution today we get the latest piece of advice Republicans should absolutely not take - but probably will. It comes from one Jay Bookman, whoever he is, and Bookman offers all the reasons the GOP can’t possibly win a fight over raising the debt ceiling. There’s one thing you’ll notice about Bookman’s advice, and it’s true from the first word to the last: It’s all political. There’s not a word in Bookman’s piece about the impact of policy on the fiscal health of the nation. There’s a lot about poll numbers. There’s a lot about pundit wisdom. There’s nothing about substance:
Slowly, painfully, political reality has begun to dawn on Washington Republicans and their supporters: If they force a major battle over the debt ceiling — a battle that they have acted oh-so-eager to fight — they are guaranteed to lose, and to lose badly.
Such a battle would be fought against superior forces, and on ill-chosen ground. The president’s approval rating are consistently above 50 percent; Congress has an approval rating of 14 percent. While Republicans still hold the House majority, they lost seats in the 2012 election and acknowledge that they held onto the majority only because of gerrymandering. Majorities of Republican voters reject key proponents of the GOP agenda, including cuts to Social Security and Medicare. In fact, 63 percent of GOP voters say the congressional GOP is out of touch. (That’s a Rasmussen number, by the way.)
And according to a new AP poll, 80 percent of Americans say that refusing to raise the debt ceiling, as House and Senate Republicans have promised to do, would touch off a major economic crisis.
Under those circumstances, threatening to force that major economic crisis unless the president implements politically unpopular policies would be the act of a fool. And fools there no doubt be.
If the only thing you care about is the political consultant’s perspective, Bookman may have a point in terms of short-term politics. But if that’s all House Republicans care about, that’s a problem for the nation. Yet clearly they do, and it’s beyond argument that the reason for this goes back to government shutdown showdown of 1995. You might remember it, or you might have read about it, but the maddening thing about this so-called historical lesson is that Republicans learned the wrong lesson from it. They may have absorbed a short-term political setback, but at least for awhile, the nation won.
Let’s go back. In 1995, Republicans had stunned the Washington establishment by taking control of both the House and the Senate for the first time in 40 years. They won the 1994 mid-term elections in a rout after Bill and Hillary Clinton wildly overreached with their attempt to nationalize health care.
Emboldened with newfound power, House Speaker Newt Gingrich stood up to Clinton on federal spending, threatening to shut down the government if Clinton did not agree to spending cuts that would get federal deficits under control. Aided by the media (remember Time Magazine and “The Gingrich Who Stole Christmas”?), Clinton went into campaign mode, which is of course where he excelled. The Republicans were going to force children to go hungry, seniors to eat dog food, poor people to die in the streets. The Republican narrative could get absolutely no traction in the press, and the public perceived that Gingrich and his allies were going too far with their threats to shut down the government in order to get what they wanted. It was a political dynamic that Clinton helped ride to re-election in 1996 over the ineffectual and poorly chosen Bob Dole.
So it was a huge mistake and a disaster for the Republicans, yes?
Even though Gingrich suffered some political wounds in this showdown, he showed Bill Clinton that he was a serious adversary and not one to be rolled easily. And he backed up his public posturing with the use of real power. When Gingrich was speaker, Clinton was not going to get away with out-of-control deficit spending, and Clinton knew it. This was way before the days when Democrats would be so brazen as to try to run the government for years on end without passing budgets, and when Clinton negotiated a budget with Gingrich, he realized he would have a fight on his hands if he tried to spend too much.
So Clinton did a smart thing. He adopted much of Gingrich’s agenda as his own and took credit for it. Federal spending was restrainted. The capital gains tax was cut. The budget actually ran a surplus for several years running. The economy grew like crazy.
Granted, much of this was pyrrhic. We had a housing bubble and a tech bubble that made the stock market look healthier than it really was, and a lot of people realized gains that existed on paper only. The tech bubble crashed just in time for George W. Bush to be stuck with the resulting recession. But even with all that, you can’t deny that the nation’s fiscal picture looked pretty good in the late 1990s compared to what we’re dealing with today. That was the direct result of Newt Gingrich’s willingness to show Bill Clinton he meant business, and was willing to take some hits if necessary, in order to achieve policies that were more in the interests of the United States. By the way, Republicans didn’t do too badly on the political front as a result of all this either. They won the presidency in 2000, kept it in 2004, and except for a brief period in 2001, kept control of both houses of Congress through 2006. Their failure to fully capitalize on this power is a whole other story, and not a happy one, but the point is that Gingrich’s decision to stand up to Bill Clinton in 1995 paid dividends both substantively and politically.
But that is not the story you hear from the political press, who repeat ad nauseum how Republicans got their clocks cleaned in the government shutdown battle, and as a result they will surely never try that again.
That’s why you see a defenestrated John Boehner unwilling to stand up to Harry Reid when he refuses to pass a real budget and instead sends the House a series of irresponsible continuing resolutions that keep the spending fest going full bore. That’s why every attempt to stand up to Obama over fiscal cliffs or debt ceilings or whatever results in little more than meaningless 10-year plans and no real spending cuts at all.
Today’s Republicans have learned the wrong lesson from 1995. Gingrich may have lost the short-term political battle, but he absolutely won the war, and so did the American people. It’s too bad the good policy decisions of the late 1990s - embraced by Clinton as a result of the pressure Gingrich applied - have not become standard operating procedure for the nation since. Barack Obama would rather die than stop spending, and the Republicans of 2013 are terrified to stand up to him - a fact that is making their majority in the House all but meaningless.
Until Republicans exorcise the demons of 1995 and learn the real lessons of what happened that year, they will be completely ineffective as any kind of force against Obama’s spending.