John Feehery: Speaking Engagements


Then and Now: Government Shutdowns

Posted on October 1, 2013

Being in a government shutdown is kind of like being a frog in a pot of water, just put over the flames.

At first, everything seems hunky dory, even comfortable.  There is not a lot of traffic, the work flow is just a little lighter, you don’t have to take as many meetings.

But pretty soon, it starts to get hot, and then really hot, and then unsustainably hot.  And then, you want to jump out of the boiling water as quickly as possible.

The 1995 & 1996 Government Shutdown

I worked for Tom DeLay in the last government shutdown, as his communications director.

Yep, I know.  Kind of weird in retrospect.

But I enjoyed working for the Whip because he was a good guy to work for and I learned a lot in the process.

DeLay took a hard line in budget negotiations during the last shut down.  I wouldn’t want to buy a car from Tom DeLay, because you wouldn’t just end up paying his initial price.  You would pay more than his price just to get out of the showroom.

When at first, we shut the government down in the initial round of negotiations, it didn’t seem like a big deal.  It was a short one and there didn’t seem to be much lost.  Federal workers got paid retroactively and our image didn’t take that big of a hit.

But conservatives felt that they got burned in that initial round of negotiations, and Tom DeLay, as the keeper of the conservative flames, felt especially burned.

That meant that the second shutdown would last a lot longer, and become a lot more painful.

It lasted three weeks, and at first, we celebrated it.  We joked that nobody would notice the parts of the government that we closed (which were things like the National Parks and the State Department).

But after a while, it became unsustainable, and eventually Bob Dole said enough was enough.

The dynamics in 1995 and 1996 were similar in many ways but profoundly different in others.

Newt Gingrich vs John Boehner

The media both hated and loved Newt Gingrich.   They hated him because they disagreed violently with where he wanted to take the country, but they loved him because he was such a great story.

The media feels great empathy for John Boehner.  They secretly admire him for being a decent guy, but they think that he has the worst job in Washington.

Gingrich was seen as a radical conservative by the public at large, but was distrusted as a squish by key members of his leadership team.

Boehner is seen as a moderate by the general public, but is probably more conservative than he gets credit for by the Republican Conference at large.

In 1995, nobody in the House Majority has ever been in a majority before.  The lack of experience of the top leadership was quite evident and even the most experienced members had never been Committee Chairmen before.

This time around, Boehner has lived through a shutdown before and knows how this script ends.  Hal Rogers, the cagey Appropriations Chairman, is a real professional.  Neither Boehner nor Rogers will make any unforced errors.

In both 1995 and today, a large of new members had a tremendous influence on the process.  The Class of 94, which included Lindsay Graham, Tom Coburn, Joe Scarborough, and Mark Souder, had no great allegiance to the leadership and were willing to buck the Speaker if they didn’t get their way.

The last two Tea Party classes might as well form their own political party.  That’s about how loyal they are to this leadership team.  Indeed, several of them voted against Boehner when he ran for Speaker.

Bill Clinton vs Barack Obama

On the Democratic side, President Clinton was running for re-election and he worried about being relevant after Republicans had seized the House.  President Obama is not worried about his reelection, just his legacy.

Clinton had a centrist mind-set, having been a key force in the creation of the DLC, a moderate Democratic group.  Obama has a progressive mindset (or liberal).   Clinton, by nature, is a people person, while Obama is a loner.  Clinton’s agenda had just gotten thoroughly rejected in the 1994 elections, while Obama feels like his easy reelection was an affirmation of his key legislative priorities.

Clinton had Dick Morris, who helped to secretly build bridges with Trent Lott.  Obama has Valerie Jarrett, who secretly tells Obama how great he is.

Clinton failed in passing Hillary-care, while Obama succeeded in passing Obamacare.

On the Senate side, Bob Dole and Trent Lott were deal makers who worked as closely with Newt Gingrich as they possibly could.  Harry Reid has no interest in cutting any deals with John Boehner today.

The key here is that in 1995, the Senate was controlled by the Republicans, making it easier to force the President’s hand with a veto.   John Boehner can’t get anything through the Senate, which makes it more difficult for him to get a clear shot at getting President Obama on the record.

In 1995, Gingrich publicly threatened to not raise the debt limit unless there was a deal.  Boehner is far too crafty to go down that road this time around.

In 1995, Republicans had a clear and positive agenda.  Balance the budget in 7 years.  Enact pro-growth tax cuts.  Reform Welfare.  Reform Medicare.  Cut spending.

Bill Clinton had a clear mantra in return.   He was going to do everything he could to protect Medicare, Medicaid, education and the environment from those Republicans.

Today's Government Shutdown

Today, Republicans have a more negative if simpler message.  Get rid of Obamacare.

The President has an easier, more defensible response:  It’s the law of the land.

In 1995, the political parties had more power.  Haley Barbour was the RNC Chairman, and he was an ally of Newt.  They were able to centralize power within the party structure.

Today, the Republican Party’s power has been dwarfed by the emergence of a powerful complex of outside conservative groups that get more energy and money in attacking fellow Republicans than they do in closing ranks behind their Speaker.

In 1995 and 1996, Republicans had far more seats that were in marginal districts than they do today.   Thanks to the wonders of redistricting, Republicans have far more to fear from a primary challenge than they do with a general election contest.

In 1995 and 1996, Bill Clinton, while not exactly beloved, could connect with white Southern Democrats in a way that Barack Obama simply cannot connect.

In 1995 and 1996, America was confident, having won the Cold War, and eager to lead the rest of world as its lone Superpower.

Today, America is despondent, and starkly divided, having barely survived a brutal fiscal crisis and a long, and increasingly unpopular war.

In 1995 and 1996, there was no Fox News or MSNBC, CNN was the big dog in cable, there were no bloggers, no Drudge Report, no Huffington Post, no Twitter, no Facebook, and the only update you got in the news was a fax from Congress Daily.

Today, news is everywhere and constantly breaking, all over the place, in every kind of forum, with every kind of rumor having just as much legitimacy as just about every fact.

How Does This All Play Out?

In 1995 and 1996, the Congress was able to reach an agreement with the President.  He signed welfare reform and then claimed credit for it.   He signed a budget that balanced in three years and then claimed credit for it.  He signed tax cuts and then claimed credit for the resulting economic boom.

Clinton is now a beloved elder statesman, despite the fact that during the last government shut-down he famously got busy with a young intern in a blue dress in the Oval Office while talking on the phone with a member of Congress.

Newt Gingrich is now a CNN host on Crossfire (hard to see how that is a promotion).  Tom DeLay just got his conviction overturned in Texas, Dick Armey is spending the 8 million dollars that he got in a settlement from Freedom Works, one of those outside groups that makes money bashing Republicans for not being conservative enough.

Today, I doubt Barack Obama will get busy with anybody in the Oval Office, and he certainly hasn’t been getting busy trying to get a negotiated settlement.

I didn’t think the shutdown would happen because I didn’t think John Boehner would let it happen.  But here we are and we could be here for a while longer.