The last time this happened was 1995-96. Then Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich thought it would be a good idea to test then President Bill Clinton’s resolve over budget negotiations. It turned out to be a bad idea; one Gingrich would rue. The result was a two-part government shutdown that lasted a total of 28 days and cost the U.S. economy billions of dollars.
Today, many pundits are comparing that shutdown with the current one and searching for parallels. Is this a case of déjà vu all over again? Will history repeat itself? Will the GOP pay a price? Will cooler heads prevail? To be honest, I’m not so sure.
For one thing, this isn’t 1996. Yes, back then Bill Clinton wasn’t doing so hot in the polls and Republicans were on the ascendency. They had just won majorities in both houses of Congress in the ’94 midterms and enjoyed high favorability ratings in the polls. Most pundits thought Clinton would bear the brunt of the blame for the shutdown. The reality was quite different. Clinton ended up winning a landslide reelection over Bob Dole and Gingrich would go on to lose his speakership.
Fast forward to today and the numbers are quite revealing. While Barack Obama has a negative job approval rating, by contrast Congressional Republicans have an approval rating that is hovering around 10 percent. Only used-car salesmen and pedophiles score lower. By all accounts that should translate to good news if you’re a Democratic strategist. Some have even hinted that the GOP’s inability to reign in the Tea Party could cost it its majority in the House. Based on the polling numbers, a case can certainly be made for a sea change.
But here’s where things start to go awry. In 1996, the Right, as we knew it, consisted of Rush Limbaugh and William F. Buckley. There was no Fox News and most of the AM radio dial still thought it was a good idea to play music. The internet? That was still years away. The Wall Street Journal was a well-respected newspaper with award-winning columnists. Oh, and the main-stream media knew how to do its job. The reason Gingrich paid a price for his stupidity was because the public was properly made aware of what the facts were. The GOP couldn’t spin its way out of the hole it had dug.
Today, the Right is well organized. While Limbaugh is still the crowned prince of clowns, he has a lot of help in the auspices of Mark Levin, Sean Hannity, Ann Coulter, Bill O’Reilly, etc… The entire AM radio dial has become a cesspool of right-wing hate and bile. And Fox News has become a 24 hour a day strong arm for the Republican Party. The main-stream media, by comparison, has grown complacent and inept. They have earned the nickname, lame-stream media.
The rise of the Tea Party, funded by the Koch brothers, Sheldon Adelson and dozens like them, has created a double-edged sword for the GOP. On the one hand, it was responsible for the enormous gains the party made during the 2010 midterms. On the other, like Frankenstein’s monster, it has now become uncontrollable and accountable to no one.
Thanks to gerrymandering, Tea Party representatives in the House enjoy virtual immunity from the most outlandish and reprehensible behavior imaginable. Shutting down the government is not only permissible, it’s outwardly encouraged, even applauded, by their constituents. For months leading up to the 2010 midterms, Tea Party candidates openly boasted that they would shut down the government if their demands were not met. This past summer, at dozens of town-hall meetings, these very same representatives promised to do whatever they could to defund Obamacare, even if it meant a shutdown. Today they are delivering on their promises. They and not the establishment Republicans are running the party. John Boehner is Speaker in name only. You almost feel sorry for the guy. Almost.
Nobody who’s been following this growing cancer should be in the least bit surprised. This moment has been approaching for three years; now it is finally here. If reports are accurate that the House is planning on tying the CR and debt-ceiling negotiations together that might well be the perfect storm.
It is still too early to tell how all this will play out. At present there appears to be a growing number of “moderate” Republicans who have expressed dissatisfaction with how House leadership has handled this situation. But their numbers are small and their influence apparently smaller still. It is unlikely they will be able to persuade Boehner to blink and allow a clean CR onto the floor.
More and more, it’s starting to look like we are in for another brush with destiny. Two years ago we dodged a bullet. This time, I fear, these fools will actually succeed in pulling the trigger.