Saturday, July 17, 2010

Planned vs. Unplanned Train Wrecks

Continuing on the topic of a possible government shutdown should the GOP win a landslide victory this November...

The thing to remember about 1995-1996 was that the train wreck wasn't an accident; it was a deliberate plan by Newt Gingrich, who mistakenly believed that Bill Clinton was a craven coward who would fold and do whatever the Republicans wanted at the first sign of any resistance from them.  While Clinton's reputation was, in fact, in tatters after DADT, Zoe Baird, the aborted stimulus package, and health care reform -- so Gingrich wasn't the only person in Washington who thought Clinton was personally weak -- it turned out to be a horrible misreading of both the man and the political situation.

Gingrich, then, planned a game of chicken, but didn't actually intend it to end in a government shutdown (actually, two shutdowns).  What he believed was that the threat of a shutdown would be enough to get Clinton to go along with GOP legislation.   The confrontation was planned, but the outcome was not planned -- and once Gingrich reached that point, he had a lot of trouble digging himself out of it.

Now, John Boehner was there, and remembers what happened.  He almost certainly has a lot more respect for Barack Obama than Gingrich did for Clinton.  He also should know, and probably does know, that the rise of the partisan media since 1995-996 will make it even harder for him, and for House Republicans, to extricate themselves from a high-profile stalemate; frankly, I think it's highly unlikely that Boehner could survive as Speaker following a high-profile "surrender" (that is, compromise).  Given all of that, I think it's unlikely that Boehner would let himself get trapped in such a situation.  Which means no cuts in Social Security, and no (significant) cuts in Medicare or Medicaid. 

What do I think the House Republicans would do if they were in the majority next year?  Here's one guess.  They would probably eliminate earmarks (zero budgetary effect).  They would do something like a domestic discretionary spending freeze (budgetary effect: slim-to-none).  And they would pass a whole bunch of tax cuts, and hire economists to score those as massive revenue increases -- and they would call that a balanced budget, and dare Barack Obama to veto it.  My guess?  A marginally Democratic Senate or a GOP Senate might go along; at Senate with 56 Dems probably wouldn't.  Obama?  Probably (but not certainly) not.  However, I suspect that the Republicans would separate it from appropriations, and so a veto would give Republicans a talking point, but it wouldn't shut down the government.

I should say that I'm quite fond of the reporting in Tell Newt to Shut Up!, by the journalists David Maraniss and Michael Weisskopf.  And it wouldn't be a Plain Blog post about Newt Gingrich if I didn't say something about Tom P. Baxter, Business Visionary.  A big part of the problem for the Republicans in 1995 was that they really believed that Newt was magic; the conventional wisdom was so strong against the Republicans ever taking the House that when they did, Gingrich was thought to be a political genius, and not a snake-oil salesman who happened to be at the right place at the right time and was smart enough to aggressively take credit for it.  John Boehner, should he be Speaker, won't have that blessing (or curse).

(edited for clarity)


  1. I understood what you were trying to say (I think), but it scans oddly having two consecutive paragraphs begin:
    "The thing to remember about 1995-1996 was that the train wreck wasn't an accident; it was a deliberate plan by Newt Gingrich.."
    "Gingrich, then, didn't actually plan to have a government shutdown."

  2. Thanks! I think you were right; edited, now, for clarity.

  3. A possibility that has been discussed on the right, but doesn't seem to get much attention from liberals, is that a Republican House could deny funds for implementing Obamacare.

    If that led to shutdown, many would see it as the Democrats holding the entire budget hostage to a narrow and not particularly popular agenda. That might become the prevailing view.

    Certainly the Republicans would claim their victory as an anti-Obamacare mandate. That would only be fair, as health care policy will surely be a bigger issue in 2010 than it was in the general election (as opposed to the Democratic primaries) in 2008.

  4. The hardest thing to accept about a Republican takeover of the House (And I think it's a distinct possibility) is a Speaker John Boehner. He's just the epitome of a second-class politician, not horrible at his job, but not as skillful as he'd need to be to overcome an opposing President and a (probably) opposite-party Senate. I can't imagine him divising a Gingrich-esque communication strategy, or keeping his caucus together like Pelosi. I can't imagine he'd last very long, no matter how healthy the Republican Majority was. There's just too few people that owe him.


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