How Clinton Won the Government Shutdown Fight & Why Obama Will Too

How appropriate. We are starting a blog called “FixGov” on the eve of a possible government shutdown.  Nothing could be more broken than a government that can’t even manage to keep its doors open.  And yet that seems to be where we’re headed.  Obviously, someone thinks they’ll win this game of chicken.  But who?

Conventional wisdom contends that the last time the government shutdown, the winter of 1995 – 1996, President Clinton won and Speaker Newt Gingrich (and Congressional Republicans), lost.  I was in the Clinton White House at the time, and I agree with this conventional wisdom.  Once the showdown was over, Clinton sailed to re-election and Gingrich’s Speakership was essentially over.

But the question for today is less whether Clinton won but why? And what does this history tell us about likely winners this time around?   There are a few ways to answer this.

First, any President can frame a more coherent message than two hundred plus Congressmen.  And if the President is of the “great communicator” vintage – then so much the better.  But the fact is that you don’t have to have a silver tongue to get to have transcendent moments – think President Bush on top of the rubble after 9/11.

A second way to answer this is that President Clinton started making the argument about saving Medicare months ahead of the showdown.  He let everyone know that although he could cave on some things, he would not cave on Medicare.  And so when the line in the sand was drawn he was ready.  Similarly, President Obama has defended his health care bill continuously.  He’s not backing down.

Is Obamacare as popular as Medicare? No. But regardless of public opinion about the health care law, few expect the President take part in the decapitation of his legislative namesake.

And a third way to answer this is to point to one of the all time great moments in the State of the Union, which came in the form of one Richard Dean from Oklahoma City.  One day, Vice President Gore came to me after having his weekly private lunch with the President.  He instructed me to find a civil servant who had been in the building when the federal building in Oklahoma City was bombed and get them to Washington for the State of the Union.

And oh, by the way, don’t tell the speechwriters.

So with some trepidation, I put some of my reinventing government team on the case.  Susan Valaskovic, on loan to the White House from the Social Security Administration, came up with our man.

As we arranged to get him to Washington, I was still somewhat convinced that whatever the President and Vice President had cooked up would never happen and I’d spend the State of the Union giving Mr. Dean a private White House tour.

Dean was an unassuming middle-aged man – a 49 year old veteran who had served in Vietnam and then gone to work for the Social Security’s Oklahoma City office where he’d been for the past 22 years.  When the bomb went off, he went back into the burning building four times and ended up saving three of his co-workers and bringing out one dead body.  After Clinton told his story with the cameras fixed on a quiet Mr. Dean sitting next to Hillary, the entire chamber burst into applause.  When it died down Clinton said:

“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.”

There were no Republicans applauding after this line.  And there were many who knew even that night that the President had won the showdown.

Presidents get to have their Richard Dean moments.  Members of Congress simply can’t capture the attention of the public the way Presidents can.  And that’s why, in the end President Obama, like Presidents before him – Democrat or Republican – will win.