How Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich Set the Stage for the Shutdown

Bill Clinton (left) and Newt Gingrich share a few words during introductions at the National Summit on Retirement Savings, June 4, 1998.  
National Journal
Sept. 30, 2013, 9:11 p.m.

The gov­ern­ment is closed.

There’s really no bet­ter way to il­lus­trate the per­vas­ive dys­func­tion that for years now has gripped Wash­ing­ton. After years of shut­down threats, debt-ceil­ing stan­doffs, fili­busters, dead-end le­gis­la­tion and end­less pos­tur­ing — on the floor, on cable news, on talk ra­dio, on Twit­ter — both sides have suc­ceeded, fi­nally, in bring­ing things to a crash­ing halt.

And for many, both in this town and out­side of it, the per­sist­ent, po­lar­ized en­vir­on­ment is ac­cep­ted with a shrug.

But it wasn’t al­ways this way. And it didn’t just hap­pen. A hand­ful of Wash­ing­ton play­ers bear in­or­din­ate re­spons­ib­il­ity for the state we’re in. We’ve asked eight Na­tion­al Journ­al writers to name names — to identi­fy the people who broke Wash­ing­ton. For the next four days, we’ll post the res­ults. Dis­agree with the choices? Nom­in­ate your own here.

Today’s gov­ern­ment shut­down is a simu­lac­rum for our broken sys­tem, and Newt Gin­grich, skip­per of shut­downs past, is au­thor of the wreck­age. His great in­nov­a­tion was draw­ing the sharpest pos­sible con­trast between Demo­crats and Re­pub­lic­ans — and build­ing a sys­tem in which mem­bers from both sides would be pun­ished for play­ing against type. More than any oth­er per­son in mod­ern Amer­ic­an his­tory, the former House speak­er is re­spons­ible for the vic­tory-at-any-cost par­tis­an­ship that brought us here. He is the grand­fath­er of Grover Nor­quist, Tom DeLay, and Ted Cruz. He is the god­fath­er of grid­lock.

Gin­grich al­ways needed a foil, and long be­fore Pres­id­ent Clin­ton, he had Bob Michel. The Re­pub­lic­an minor­ity lead­er was a creature of the old school when Gin­grich won elec­tion to the House in 1978 — an antedi­lu­vi­an fig­ure who be­lieved his party could wield more power by work­ing with the Demo­crat­ic ma­jor­ity (and pres­id­ent) to pass le­gis­la­tion than by fight­ing it. Gin­grich saw this as a re­cipe for per­man­ent sub­jug­a­tion and be­lieved the only way to pass con­sist­ently con­ser­vat­ive policies was to win con­trol of the House.

Slowly, he gathered aco­lytes who agreed. They began to flay es­tab­lish­ment Re­pub­lic­ans as quis­lings and Demo­crats as cor­rupt. (Gin­grich ul­ti­mately forced the resig­na­tion of Demo­crat­ic Speak­er Jim Wright by re­quest­ing an Eth­ics Com­mit­tee in­vest­ig­a­tion in­to Wright’s book con­tract.) They defined them­selves less by their in­flu­ence be­hind closed doors and more by their con­front­a­tion­al me­dia mes­sage, which they pur­veyed dur­ing bom­bast­ic night­time speeches in the empty cham­ber, giv­en for the be­ne­fit of the C-SPAN cam­er­as that beamed them in­to more and more homes with the spread of cable. This show­boat­ing tech­nique now rep­res­ents most of what is said on the House floor.

In a pre­lude to today’s tea-party-versus-Boehner dy­nam­ic, Gin­grichites waged open re­volt against party lead­ers on sev­er­al oc­ca­sions. When Sen. Bob Dole steered tax hikes through Con­gress in­1982, Gin­grich called him the “tax-col­lect­or of the wel­fare state.” Gin­grich also dis­liked the im­mensely pop­u­lar “Morn­ing in Amer­ica” mes­sage be­hind Pres­id­ent Re­agan’s 1984 reelec­tion. “Re­agan should have pre­pared “¦ by for­cing a po­lar­iz­a­tion of the coun­try,” he told the Her­it­age Found­a­tion that year. “He should have been run­ning against lib­er­als and rad­ic­als.” In 1990, Gin­grich per­suaded nearly half of the House GOP to re­ject George H.W. Bush’s de­fi­cit-re­du­cing budget, which fea­tured spend­ing cuts but also tax hikes. “The No. 1 thing we had to prove in the fall of ‘90,” he later said, “was that, if you ex­pli­citly de­cided to gov­ern from the cen­ter, we could make it so un­be­liev­ably ex­pens­ive you couldn’t sus­tain it.” His at­tacks were hurt­ing Re­pub­lic­ans al­most as much Demo­crats, but after the GOP re­took the house in 1994 (after 40 years of Demo­crat­ic con­trol), he avowed that he’d needed to erase the cham­ber’s cred­ib­il­ity with the pub­lic be­fore he could save it.

By the time Gin­grich be­came speak­er (with a com­mand­ing ma­jor­ity), he had con­vinced his party that bi­par­tis­an­ship was self-de­feat­ing. Bob Michel sud­denly seemed like a di­no­saur. Gin­grich pushed the Con­tract with Amer­ica through his cham­ber and was so con­fid­ent in his power that he chose to shut down the gov­ern­ment in 1995 and 1996 rather than com­prom­ise with Clin­ton. Then the pub­lic turned on him and, chastened, he began to ne­go­ti­ate with the pres­id­ent. To­geth­er, they passed wel­fare re­form in 1996 and a bal­anced budget by 1999. (Gin­grich cred­ited or­din­ary Amer­ic­ans with his turn­around. “It was their polit­ic­al will that brought the two parties to­geth­er,” he said at the budget sign­ing.) It seemed, for a brief peri­od, that after years as a war­ri­or he might be ready to be­come a deal­maker. But by the end of the Clin­ton pres­id­ency, the trends Gin­grich had worked for two dec­ades to shape could not be un­done, and when the Lew­in­sky scan­dal broke, he re­turned to form: He im­peached the pres­id­ent.

As a House in­sur­gent, of course, Gin­grich didn’t ex­ist in a va­cu­um. Speak­er Tip O’Neill had over­seen a dozen shut­downs of vary­ing length and sever­ity. Then House Demo­crats pushed Re­pub­lic­ans to Gin­grich’s ban­ner with a series of pro­ced­ur­al changes: Wright used the end of seni­or­ity to con­cen­trate power in his hands, ap­por­tion­ing chair­man­ships and plum com­mit­tee as­sign­ments to pli­ant mem­bers who would ad­vance lib­er­als goals. He some­times sent bills to the floor without op­por­tun­it­ies for GOP amend­ments. And he ex­cluded Re­pub­lic­ans from some fisc­al de­lib­er­a­tions. Still, these changes were largely re­ac­tions to the hos­tile ap­proach Gin­grich pi­on­eered, and they didn’t yet fore­close bi­par­tis­an co­oper­a­tion. The most rad­ic­ally com­bat­ive in­nov­a­tions all came from Gin­grich as a way to re­claim the ma­jor­ity. More broadly, Gin­grich be­lieved that Re­pub­lic­ans had made them­selves party to a cor­rupt sys­tem of horse-trad­ing and com­prom­ise. The only way to break it was to stand on prin­ciple.

Voters, however, say they don’t want par­tis­an war­fare. They blamed the GOP for the shut­downs of the 1990s and ous­ted five Re­pub­lic­ans in 1998 after the im­peach­ment drive, cost­ing Gin­grich his job. Nev­er­the­less, the happy war­ri­or had taught den­iz­ens of Con­gress how to win, and since then, both parties have reaped the polit­ic­al re­wards of fight­ing, or at least speech­i­fy­ing for the cam­er­as, rather than break­ing bread with their op­pon­ents. Both have fol­lowed the Hastert rule, which Gin­grich first de­vised. In al­most every cycle since Gin­grich first ar­rived in Wash­ing­ton, Re­pub­lic­ans have been be­come more vi­gil­ant about pun­ish­ing de­vi­ations from or­tho­doxy. (“RINO” is now a dan­ger­ous ap­pel­la­tion.) The rise of Obama’s co­ali­tion — anchored by young, minor­ity, and wealthy urb­an voters — has be­gun to push Demo­crats in the same dir­ec­tion. As the com­pos­i­tion of Con­gress changed, so did the will­ing­ness of law­makers to haggle over laws. It’s no co­in­cid­ence that, in the years since Gin­grich be­came speak­er, the ap­prov­al of Con­gress has fallen from 38 to 19 per­cent.

Since he left Con­gress, Gin­grich has con­tin­ued to jus­ti­fy the man­euver he be­came known for. “The Wash­ing­ton es­tab­lish­ment be­lieves that the gov­ern­ment shut­down of 1995 was a dis­astrous mis­take that ac­com­plished little and cost House Re­pub­lic­ans polit­ic­ally. The facts are ex­actly the op­pos­ite,” he wrote in a 2011 op-ed. An­oth­er shut­down “is not an ideal res­ult, but for House Re­pub­lic­ans, break­ing their word would be far worse.” In a tele­phone in­ter­view, Gin­grich points out that Demo­crats, too, have of­ten stuck to their guns, such as the time they threatened to aban­don the 1990 budget ne­go­ti­ations un­less Bush aban­doned his no-new-taxes pledge. Ul­ti­mately, they didn’t have to, but “these things hap­pen when you’re in a crunch, and people push to see how ser­i­ous the oth­er side is.” And what role did Gin­grich have in­grain­ing that ap­proach in­to his party’s DNA? “As much as Gold­wa­ter and Re­agan did,” he says.

- Adam B. Kush­ner

Bill Clin­ton didn’t set out to swipe the Re­pub­lic­ans’ tra­di­tion­al agenda and send the GOP down the road to rad­ic­al­iz­a­tion. Nor did the 42nd pres­id­ent set out to po­lar­ize the coun­try. But these were the un­in­ten­ded ef­fects of his polit­ic­al strategies — as bril­liant as they were in get­ting him elec­ted.

Clin­ton’s pre­ferred course would have been to gov­ern as a warm-hearted Demo­crat­ic pop­u­list like his hero, Frank­lin Delano Roosevelt, unit­ing the coun­try be­hind an agenda of “bold, per­sist­ent ex­per­i­ment­a­tion” (an FDR phrase Clin­ton used in his first in­aug­ur­al speech), long-time Clin­ton ac­quaint­ances have said. Soon after tak­ing of­fice Clin­ton laid a wreath at Hyde Park, placed an icon­ic bust of FDR in the Oval Of­fice and, in policy terms, one White House of­fi­cial later re­called, “talked far more about Roosevelt than JFK” (the pres­id­ent with whom, dur­ing the 1992 cam­paign, he’d hoped voters would identi­fy him).

But Clin­ton was also the sav­vi­est politi­cian of his gen­er­a­tion, and by the early ‘90s he saw it was no longer feas­ible to run or gov­ern as a tra­di­tion­al New Deal Demo­crat. Ron­ald Re­agan had changed the terms of the de­bate. Clin­ton cham­pioned the Demo­crat­ic Lead­er­ship Coun­cil, which was the party’s con­ces­sion to the emer­ging zeit­geist: “mar­ket-based solu­tions” and de­fer­ence to smal­ler gov­ern­ment. Nor was it Clin­ton’s fault that, by the time he ran for pres­id­ent, the “Re­agan Re­volu­tion” had only gone half way. It de­reg­u­lated and freed up the eco­nomy to mar­ket forces, but Re­agan’s fal­ter­ing at­tach­ment to the the­ory of sup­ply-side eco­nom­ics — his re­luct­ance to cut gov­ern­ment spend­ing at the same time as he cut taxes, on the idea that lower taxes would un­leash more prosper­ity — had left be­hind a fisc­al dis­aster: A gov­ern­ment that was just as big, but badly un­der­fun­ded. His eco­nom­ic ad­visors counseled that he had to tackle the de­fi­cit first, tra­di­tion­ally a Re­pub­lic­an con­cern.

And so the stage was set for a polit­ic­al hi­jack­ing: bit by bit, piece by piece, “tri­an­gu­lat­ing” his way to­ward the cen­ter once oc­cu­pied by main­stream Re­pub­lic­ans, Clin­ton re­made the Demo­crat­ic Party in the im­age of the old GOP. In an in­ter­view a few years ago, his long-time friend and first chief of staff, Thomas “Mack” McLarty, re­called the de­cis­ive mo­ment two weeks be­fore the in­aug­ur­a­tion at a big eco­nom­ic gath­er­ing Clin­ton held in Little Rock to ful­fill his cam­paign prom­ise of “put­ting people first.” “Bob Ru­bin [who would go on to be­come dir­ect­or of Clin­ton’s Na­tion­al Eco­nom­ic Coun­cil and then Treas­ury sec­ret­ary] called me from Wash­ing­ton that morn­ing,” McLarty re­called. “It re­minded me of the Hou­s­ton- NASA thing. He said, ‘Mac, we’ve got a prob­lem.’ And I said, ‘What’s the prob­lem?’ He said, ‘The de­fi­cit is con­sid­er­ably lar­ger than we thought it was go­ing to be.’ And what that really meant was the be­gin­ning of the hard choices. The middle class tax cut he had prom­ised, and some of the pro­grams that our more tra­di­tion­al Demo­crats had felt were es­sen­tial.”

Clin­ton ul­ti­mately tackled the de­fi­cit, the bond mar­ket re­war­ded him and the eco­nomy began to boom. And like Wal­ter White get­ting lured deep­er and deep­er in­to the meth trade in “Break­ing Bad,” Clin­ton found him­self en­ticed in­to oth­er parts of the GOP agenda like “work­fare” re­form and cham­pi­on­ing NAF­TA. He hired Dav­id Ger­gen, who had been an ad­visor to three Re­pub­lic­an pres­id­ents. He began us­ing the Re­aganesque phrase, “The era of big gov­ern­ment is over.” Clin­ton him­self be­came un­com­fort­ably aware of his trans­form­a­tion, telling his aides sar­castic­ally (ac­cord­ing to Bob Wood­ward in The Agenda): “We’re Eis­en­hower Re­pub­lic­ans here, and we’re fight­ing the Re­agan Re­pub­lic­ans. We stand for lower taxes and free trade and the bond mar­ket. Isn’t that great?”

At the same time as he drove them right­ward , Clin­ton ali­en­ated Re­pub­lic­ans with his po­lar­iz­ing tac­tics. His 1993 budget passed both the House and the Sen­ate without a single Re­pub­lic­an vote. The same deep par­tis­an split oc­curred over his plans to raise top mar­gin­al tax rates in or­der to cut the de­fi­cit. That lead to the “Con­tract with Amer­ica” Gin­grich re­volu­tion and the takeover of the House in 1994, the pre­curs­or to the shock that an­oth­er po­lar­iz­ing cent­rist Demo­crat, Barack Obama, would face in 2010. Un­der Ru­bin’s guid­ance, Clin­ton’s in­creas­ing co­zi­ness with Wall Street also be­queathed a grow­ing pop­u­list an­ger that led to a split­ting off of the liber­tari­an right from the GOP and of the pro­gress­ive left from the Demo­crat­ic Party, fur­ther break­ing down the con­sensus in Wash­ing­ton. This be­came es­pe­cially acute after many of the de­reg­u­lat­ory fin­an­cial policies that began dur­ing the Clin­ton years, such as the re­peal of the Glass-Steagall law sep­ar­at­ing fed­er­ally sponsored com­mer­cial bank­ing from ris­ki­er in­vest­ment bank­ing, led dir­ectly to the fin­an­cial crash of 2008 and gi­ant Wall Street bail­outs.

The polit­ic­al dy­nam­ics that un­der­lay the gov­ern­ment shut­down fight of 1994-95 gave the best evid­ence of the ever-right­ward shift of the polit­ics of Wash­ing­ton. Gin­grich, the gran­di­ose new Speak­er who saw him­self as an his­tor­ic trans­form­a­tion­al fig­ure, viewed the GOP takeover of the House as a man­date for drastic cuts in spend­ing and a bal­anced budget. Clin­ton, still tri­an­gu­lat­ing, ini­tially showed flex­ib­il­ity in budget ne­go­ti­ations. That only made Gin­grich more self-con­fid­ent that he could get his way. As the budget fight con­tin­ued, Gin­grich in­sisted on his en­tire pro­gram, in­clud­ing tax cuts for the wealthy and cuts in Medi­care. After he hin­ted on “This Week with Dav­id Brinkley” that as speak­er he might re­fuse to raise the debt lim­it in April 1995, the polit­ic­al struggle erup­ted in­to open war. Gin­grich pub­licly threatened that the U.S. might have to de­fault on its debt for the first time in its his­tory. Even­tu­ally the gov­ern­ment shut down, lead­ing to bit­ter­ness and fin­ger-point­ing on both sides.

And so, by the time Clin­ton cheated on First Lady Hil­lary Rod­ham Clin­ton with a White House in­tern named Mon­ica Lew­in­sky and then lied about it, it was no sur­prise that his glee­ful GOP foes re­spon­ded with im­peach­ment, fur­ther po­lar­iz­ing the coun­try. No less a GOP stal­wart than Alan Green­span would later write in his mem­oir: “I think Bill Clin­ton was the best Re­pub­lic­an pres­id­ent we’ve had in a while.” But rather than ush­er­ing in a new era of bi­par­tis­an­ship, Clin­ton’s move to the middle drove the GOP farther to the right and per­man­ently broke the del­ic­ate polit­ic­al mech­an­ism of com­prom­ise.

-Mi­chael Hirsh

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