When President Donald Trump decided to plunge the country into a partial government shutdown, Republican leaders in Congress warned him against doing so.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) tried to convince the president he had no leverage and wouldn’t be able to make Democrats give him $5.7 billion to build a border wall. Paul Ryan, who was then the speaker of the House, told Trump he saw no way for Republicans to win a standoff. And Kevin McCarthy, then the House majority leader, warned that a shutdown during the holiday season was a bad idea.
Trump, nevertheless, pushed ahead, refusing to sign legislation to keep the government operating ― unless he received money for his border wall, which during the campaign he said Mexico would pay for.
Republican leaders had good reason to be cautious about shutting down the government: The GOP would probably get blamed for it. Historically, the public tends to hold the Republican Party for such impasses.
“Republicans usually get the blame for shutdowns because they usually cause the shutdowns, which is inevitable as they have become more controlled by their ideologically extreme members,” said Anna Greenberg, a Democratic pollster with Greenberg Quinlan Rosner.
Trump is learning this lesson now. The current shutdown is the longest in history, with no end in sight. He continues to insist on money for his border wall, while Democrats refuse to give it to him.
The public is blaming Trump for the mess, according to polls by HuffPost/YouGov and other news outlets. To be clear, no one in government comes out looking especially good during a shutdown, but he is being held responsible (as he once said he wanted to be).
Voters blamed congressional Republicans for a shutdown in 2013 (when the GOP wanted to extract concessions on killing Obamacare) and two from 1995 to 1996 (when President Bill Clinton refused to go along with GOP budget cuts).
Newt Gingrich certainly didn’t help his party gain support for the shutdowns in the 1990s. Gingrich, who was House speaker, was already unpopular. Then he indicated that he had shut down the government for a very personal reason: He felt Clinton snubbed him on a flight from Israel in November.
“This is petty,” Gingrich told reporters, according to a Nov. 17, 1995, article in The Washington Post. “[But] you land at Andrews [Air Force Base] and you’ve been on the plane for 25 hours and nobody has talked to you and they ask you to get off the plane by the back ramp. … You just wonder, where is their sense of manners? Where is their sense of courtesy?”
Clinton also effectively used his bully pulpit to shame Republicans, highlighting the personal toll of the shutdowns, the second of which lasted 21 days. During his 1996 State of the Union address, he honored the service of Richard Dean, a heroic public servant who risked his life to save others during the Oklahoma City bombing the previous April. He was sat in the first lady’s box for the address, and when Clinton honored Dean’s service, the entire chamber applauded him. From Clinton’s speech:
I’d like to give you one example. His name is Richard Dean. He is a 49-year-old Vietnam veteran who’s worked for the Social Security Administration for 22 years now. Last year he was hard at work in the federal building in Oklahoma City when the blast killed 169 people and brought the rubble down all around him. He re-entered that building four times. He saved the lives of three women. He’s here with us this evening, and I want to recognize Richard and applaud both his public service and his extraordinary personal heroism.
Then Clinton delivered his kicker: Dean had been furloughed during the shutdowns. Clinton’s call for Congress to never again shut down the government received boisterous cheers from Democrats. Gingrich, meanwhile, sat awkwardly at the dais behind Clinton.
But Richard Dean’s story doesn’t end there. This last November, he was forced out of his office when the government shut down. And the second time the government shut down, he continued helping Social Security recipients, but he was working without pay.
On behalf of Richard Dean and his family and all the other people who are out there working every day doing a good job for the American people, I challenge all of you in this chamber: Never, ever shut the federal government down again.
The ensuing coverage declared Clinton’s speech a success and panned the GOP response from Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (Kan.). The San Jose Mercury News praised Clinton’s “conciliatory-sounding speech” and criticized Dole’s “sharply partisan response.”
“President Clinton ate the Republicans’ supper Tuesday night, but House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Sen. Bob Dole wound up with heartburn,” wrote Chicago Sun-Times syndicated columnist Carl Rowan two days later.
And there was no doubt that House Republican Whip Tom DeLay (Texas) realized that politically, Clinton had won. According to the 1997 book Mirage by George Hager and Eric Pianin, DeLay went home and rewatched the State of the Union speech at 1:30 a.m.
“Tom DeLay screamed at Bill Clinton, fighting the urge to throw something,” Hager and Pianin write, adding that DeLay sat “raging at his television set, calling Clinton a ‘lying, disingenuous, smarmy son of a bitch.’”
The Trump administration, so far, has not gone the Clinton route of talking about individual federal workers and the toll the shutdown is taking on them. Democrats in Congress, however, have been doing so, in an effort to shame the president and congressional Republicans into giving up their border wall demand.
Instead, Trump and his aides have downplayed being furloughed and missing paychecks ― comparing it to a vacation ― and claimed that most federal workers are standing behind him. (There is no evidence of that.)
A 2018 shutdown, which lasted just three days, had blame spread more evenly. According to a HuffPost/YouGov poll, 61 percent of Americans surveyed said they blamed Congress as a whole, with equal blame going to Democrats and Republicans (and less to Trump). That shutdown was precipitated by Senate Democrats trying to incorporate into budget negotiations a deal to help the young undocumented immigrants known as Dreamers.
Shutdowns often don’t have long-term electoral consequences, though. In the 1996 and 2014 congressional elections, Republicans made gains, despite shouldering most of the blame for recent shutdowns. But in 1996, Clinton won re-election, defeating Dole. And in 2018, Democrats took control of the House.
So Trump may not bear the political costs of the shutdown in 2020. But then again, no shutdown has ever lasted this long, and it’s not clear how steep the costs will be both on individuals and to the broader economy.
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