Would a government shutdown--or some other seminal event--be just what Washington needs to end partisan gridlock?
Former President Clinton, in an appearance on MSNBC Thursday, credited the two government shutdowns that occurred during his tenure with helping set the parameters for policy debates, helping Congress and the White House finally find common ground.
“We had this defining event, these government shutdowns, which sort of established the goalposts: 'Here's the end of this field; here's the end of this field. Go out and play on the field now and get something done,'” Clinton said of political debate during his tenure.
In the 1990s, two government shutdowns taught Republicans their limits, while the 1994 midterms taught Democrats theirs, Clinton said.
President Obama faced a similar showdown with Congress over the debt ceiling this summer, but conditions are different now than they were in the 1990s, Clinton said.
“If the economy had been strong, the debt-ceiling fight might have established the limits," Clinton said. "But with the economy weak, the president could not responsibly allow the debt ceiling not to be raised. Because we had to honor our credit. You couldn't let everybody's interest rates go up in this country, as bad as it is now.”
Clinton talked about the pendulum swing of American politics—the tick-tock that brings Republicans to power when voters feel Democrats are spending and regulating too much, and Democrats to power when voters think Republicans are cutting too much.
America has always been “a country suspicious of the concentration of government power,” Clinton said. “So in general, whether it's right or not, they generally prefer to have the White House in one party and the Congress in another.”
Congress is currently scrambling to avert a possible government shutdown, after a continuing resolution vote failed in the House on Wednesday. The deadline for passing another stopgap spending bill is Oct. 1.
The problem, Clinton said, is that “what works best in politics is clear, sharp conflict,” while “what works best in real life is cooperation.” That "gaping chasm" hinders the government's efficiency.
“We really are in a situation where, in the modern world, the economics that work is based on conflict or cooperation. It's not government versus anti-government. It's smart government and a strong economy working together,” Clinton said.