No one's sure which party stands to benefit politically with a government shutdown. Polls suggest both parties will suffer. But the overriding consensus in Washington is that the government shutdown of 1995 is the crucial historical analogy. Voters blamed Republicans, President Clinton won reelection and Newt Gingrich ate crow. But why limit the comparisons to 1995? Surely there must be other budget battles to draw on. And what about other factors like the role of new media? Here are the problems with comparing 1995 to 2011.
The Media Environment
In 1995, political journalism was a different animal. Major news organizations hadn't yet embraced the web. Bloggers weren't important. Politicians couldn't communicate via Twitter and the partisan fragmentation of the media was nascent (Fox News didn't even exist). Republicans see this as an advantage. "Quite honestly, the major newspapers had a stranglehold on political news in 1995," freshman Rep. Todd Rokita told The New York Times. "Now you have cable on both sides." Salon's Andrew Leonard agrees. "Nobody should be expecting history to repeat itself. Because Rep. Rokita is absolutely right. The media landscape has completely transformed... People can much more easily choose the reality that they want to live in, and get it backed up 24 by 7 by their favorite blogs and cable channels."
The Polling Difference
When push comes to shove, the American public typically favors the president over Congress, which is good for President Obama. But Andrew Kohut, an independent pollster, says 1995 was different. Looking at polling ahead of both showdowns, Kohut says Obama "doesn't have the advantage Clinton had" because he's "dealing with an opposition that isn't as poorly regarded." In '95, Clinton didn't just avoid blame, "people came to have a much more positive view of him relative to the Republicans," Kohut says.
What About 1990?
Budget battles happen often. Who's to say 1995's battle is the best to extrapolate from? This morning, Politico's Mike Allen highlights an email he received from a former Bush administration official. "It's interesting that everyone is talking about how clinton won 95 shutdown and republicans lost, as though it's the only budget battle in history. but nobody is talking about how 41 compromised (broke ‘read my lips’ pledge) to avoid shutdown in 1990 and lost reelection as a result.” Food for thought.
Much of public opinion relies on how well politicians sell their ideas to the electorate. So how does House Speaker Boehner's public charisma compare to House Speaker Gingrich's? Rich Gallen, a former Gingrich adviser who helped him during the '90s shutdown, gives the Chicago Tribune a telling quote: "Boehner isn't Gingrich, which is a good thing, and Obama isn't Clinton, which, for Democrats, is a bad thing." It's also worth pointing out that Republicans have an easier pitch to sell in 2011 than they did in 1995. With the national debt now at $14 trillion, getting serious about the budget becomes more urgent of an issue.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.