Newt Gingrich on the 1995 Shutdown

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
April 1 2011 3:28 PM

Newt Gingrich on the 1995 Shutdown

Benjy Sarlin tells the history of Newt Gingrich's explanations for the 1995 shutdown, and his ever-changing takes on who won and who lost. It's worth reading, because it's totally true that Gingrich alters his grand unified theory of what happened depending on who he's talking to and when he does it.

That said, I read Gingrich's 1998 memoir Lessons Learned the Hard Way last week. The book is one of the sources for the "Newt used to say the shutdown failed for Republicans" story. What's interesting is why he says the shutdown failed. He cites PR reasons that are no longer such a problem for Republicans. For example:

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 


Republicans are with good reason highly distrustful of the media. They do not believe they are likely to get a fair shake from most reporters... when the negotiations with Clinton broke down and he vetoed the budget, the story was instead about such hardships as the families of government workers who might not be able to celebrate Christmas or the small businesses on the edges of the national parks that were going broke because the parks had to remain closed. In other words, the story about the shutdown was once again -- as with the old story of the famous Reagan spending cuts that happened not to be cuts at all -- the story of Republican heartlessness.

Are Republicans in the same straits now, in the era of the Drudge Report, Fox News, and conservative blogs? I don't think so. (In the book, Gingrich makes one reference to the new "Fox Channel.") Democrats start a possible shutdown having been criticized for weeks, a lot of the criticism coming in the form of favorable interviews of Republicans conducted on Fox. And any discussion of this possible shutdown vis-a-vis the 1995-1996 shutdown has to take that into consideration.

Gingrich has more relevant advice for Republicans, telling readers that the then-chairman of the RNC -- now the governor of Mississippi -- had a smart strategy that Republicans should have followed.

Haley Barbour understood the situation far better than the rest of us. For six weeks he tried to persuade us that our strategy was wrong. We were not going to get a budget agreement, he said, and every time we met with Clinton to negotiate, we were only strengthening his position. Haley would have had us cut off negotiations by late November, never meet at the White House and never close down the government. He believed that a sharp and clear distance between us and the White House was clearly to our advantage; any time we demonstrated our willingness to negotiate with the President we merely added to his stature and brought ourselves no closer to any agreement.

Think about that and think about what Republicans have been doing and saying recently. They have placed the onus on the White House to a point approaching self-parody. (IE, Boehner saying yesterday that the GOP only ran one-half of one-third of the government.) They have stressed one point over and over again -- they've passed a budget and the Democrats haven't matched them.

I think they're interpreting Gingrich's advice quite well.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 


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