March 3 (Bloomberg) -- History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes, Mark Twain is thought to have said. Democrats are hoping that’s true.
Fifteen years ago, fierce budget fights between Bill Clinton and the Republican Congress forced the government to shut down twice. The conflict boosted the president, revitalized his vision for government and branded Republicans as extreme.
Now, as battles loom over the debt ceiling and spending, another shutdown seems quite possible. Congress temporarily postponed the first fight this week in a vote approving a stopgap measure that keeps the government funded until March 18.
But the odds favor budgetary head-butting throughout 2011. This year’s budget battle is even more tangled, more fraught and more likely to lead to a murky result economically and politically than in the mid-1990s.
In 1995, as today, Republicans were roaring in opposition to the federal government. They aimed to force Clinton to sign a draconian budget or risk a shutdown. They assumed the president would give in. If not, many thought, citizens would cheer a padlocking of the hated federal establishment.
After marathon negotiations, Clinton vetoed their budget bills. Government services deemed “non-essential” were shuttered. Tourists were turned away from national parks. A debt crisis was averted only when Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin declared a 12-month “debt issuance suspension period.”
For those of us working for Clinton, it was a charged time. The White House echoed empty, with only a handful of aides. Every day, Clinton strode into the White House press room and volleyed arguments back and forth with House Speaker Newt Gingrich at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. With the public riveted, he urged “a balanced budget that honors our values by protecting Medicare, Medicaid, education and the environment.”
Every bit of stagecraft made the point. To veto one budget bill, he used the very fountain pen that President Lyndon Johnson had used to sign Medicare into law. The ink didn’t work, but the photo op did. Soon public opinion began to turn. When Gingrich complained that he had been forced to leave Air Force One through the back entrance, the entire grand confrontation was easily caricatured as a fit of pique. Finally, Senate Republicans, led by Robert Dole, forced a back-down. A new consensus for a smaller, but active, government took hold, at least for a while.
It’s hardly likely to play out so cleanly today. The White House faces a different political imperative. Clinton had been derided as “slick” and too prone to compromise. The budget fight gave him a chance to stand up for his principles. Obama’s weakness comes not from image but unemployment near 10 percent for almost two years. He can stand tough all he wants: If it doesn’t cure joblessness, the public won’t care. Obama’s imperative is to convey a sure sense of economic management.
It’s different on Capitol Hill, too. Tea Party lawmakers are just as excitable as their forebears, demonstrated when they forced a vote on deep cuts in food-safety inspection or border security. But their leadership seems more deft. Speaker John Boehner is far less messianic, and less likely to self-destruct, than Gingrich.
In any case, the public will find it hard to follow a simple shutdown morality play. In 1995, a president of one party faced off against a Congress of another. Today, Congress is divided. Half-attentive citizens may not hear “president stands up for principle” as much as “Congress bickers, deadlocks, dysfunctional as usual.”
Today’s media environment will further cloud the picture. The 1995 shutdown dominated what quaintly used to be called “the evening news” and received much ink in what were called “newspapers.” The Internet was in its infancy, CNN was the only widely watched cable network, and Fox News hadn’t launched.
Given all this, how can Obama prevail on policy while making a larger point? A key goal is to manage the government as effectively as possible, given the hairpin turns ahead. Minimizing the public impact will prove better politics than letting government fail. He will have to find his moments to engage, too, since he may not have many veto statements to issue. At each moment, he will have to choose whether to rise above partisan passions, or step forward as a principled advocate for his point of view.
Ultimately, he must use the bully pulpit. Democrats can’t simply pick at unpopular cuts. Obama will have to explain that the economy still needs investment, or risk imperiling the recovery. And it needs real fiscal discipline, without putting Medicare at risk. It’s a subtle argument, but he will have a more attentive audience than before.
Clinton sealed his shutdown victory in his 1996 State of the Union address. Though he declared, “The era of big government is over,” he also introduced Richard Dean, a Social Security Administration employee in the Oklahoma City federal building who had helped rescue people injured in the 1995 bombing by Timothy McVeigh.
Dean, Clinton noted, was kept from doing his job by the shutdown. On Dean’s behalf, Clinton declared, “I challenge all of you in this Chamber: Never, ever shut the federal government down again.”
This year’s budget brawl will probably last months. If Obama doesn’t just try to make history rhyme, he has a chance to set the terms for the next decade of debate.
(Michael Waldman, former head speechwriter for President Bill Clinton, is executive director of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law and the author of “My Fellow Americans.” The opinions expressed are his own.)
To contact the writer of this column: Michael.Waldman.firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editor responsible for this column: James Greiff at email@example.com