Did the Gingrich/Clinton Shutdown Lead to the GOP's Libertarian Purge?

The Ghosts of '96

As a heavily unpopular partial government shutdown sails along for a second week, many of the Republican insurgents who helped will it into existence are weathering the unfavorable poll numbers by reminding themselves that the popular narrative about the last great shutdown damaging the GOP is a "myth." Talk show titan Rush Limbaugh might have made the case most succinctly three weeks ago:

Of course, you go back to 1995 and in the media it was a disaster for the Republicans. In the real world it wasn't. They won Senate seats in the year following, in the election following the shutdown. They gained two seats and they lost nine in the House. It was not a disaster. And from a policy standpoint, what they stood for in that shutdown actually led to Clinton signing welfare reform as something he needed to do to get reelected in 1996.  So there's that.

This was not a dismissible case of cocoon logic: You can see similar sentiments in such non-conservative outlets as The Guardian ("Obama's party can't bank on 1996 mythology"), The New Republic ("Backlash Against the GOP Is Actually Weaker Than 1996's"), and the Pew Research Center. The latter outfit, in a bookmark-worthy Sept. 27 blog post by Alec Tyson and Carroll Doherty, bring some poll numbers and historical context:

One lesson that people should not take away is that the 1995-96 shutdowns themselves were a political disaster for Republicans. Certainly, the government shutdown didn't help the GOP's image, but the party had lost support among the public well before the initial shutdown in November 1995. [...]

Public views of Republican leaders' policies, which were nearly two-to-one positive in the month after the [November 1994] election (52% approve, 28% disapprove), turned negative just eight months later. In August 1995, 38% approved GOP leaders' proposals while 45% disapproved. Notably, these opinions did not change much over the following year – including through the period of the two government shutdowns.

||| Pew Research CenterPew Research CenterWhile the party's overall numbers didn’t seem to suffer, those of its shutdown leader, then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich, plummeted to the lowest of any national politician, while his antagonist Bill Clinton soared (see chart to the right).

So do proponents of limiting government have nothing serious to fear by potential shutdown-backlash directed at the GOP’s Wacko Birds wing? I wouldn't be so sure.

Republicans indeed retained their congressional majorities in 1996 despite a lackluster presidential candidate, but they did so while running away from, not toward, the government-cutting passion that fueled at least a substantial portion of the 1994 Gingrich Revolution.

"The Republicans don't want another closing down of the government incident," pollster Stuart Rothenberg told PBS in September 1996. "They want to communicate to the voters that they can work, they can govern, they're flexible, they picked up some heavy negative baggage by appearing to be too ideological."

Pollster Charles Cook, on the same broadcast, made a similar observation: "I think what you saw in the closing days of the session before they adjourned in August, you saw Republicans toning down a lot of the rhetoric which I think sort of created a negative caricature."

Gingrich Republicans in 1995 talked a lot about reforming Medicare, balancing the budget, getting the government out of the student-loan business, slashing hundreds of unnecessary agencies, and so on. By the '96 election, much of that agenda was shelved, as Capitol Hill Republicans distanced themselves from the philosophy, tactics, and personhood of Gingrichism.

In the Cato Institute's 2005 book, The Republican Revolution 10 Years Later, participants and observers of those years state again and again that whatever was libertarian about the Class of '94 had dissipated by early '97 at the latest, and was a distant memory in the wilderness years of the Bush Administration. The Gingrich/Clinton shutdowns loomed large in their analysis.

"After the government shutdown in 1995...the GOP zeal for...reform waned," wrote the Competitive Enterprise Institute's Clyde Wayne Crews Jr, in a typical passage. "Republican attempts to reform the regulatory process lost steam under a rhetorical barrage. Opponents caricatured GOP reform efforts as 'mad-dog Republican ideologists join with robber-baron capitalists to regain the right to add poison to baby food bottles,' as [CEI]'s Fred Smith...noted."

Within 20 months of the Gingrich/Clinton shutdown, increasingly nervous Republicans rallied around two new ideological strains explicitly designed to combat libertarian hard-heartedness: Compassionate Conservatism, as popularized by Marvin Olasky and championed by George W. Bush; and National Greatness Conservatism, hatched by The Weekly Standard's William Kristol and David Brooks, embodied by John McCain.

"There's a message here," enthused liberal columnist E.J. Dionne in 1997. "The era of bashing government is ending."

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  • Fist of Etiquette||

    While the party's overall numbers didn’t seem to suffer, those of its shutdown leader, then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich, plummeted to the lowest of any national politician...

    So what you're saying is the GOP needs to pick a Congressman to be the face of the shutdown and set him up with a golden parachute.

  • Matt Welch||

    Buh-Bye, Ted Cruz!

  • Paul.||

    If Ted Cruz could offer dry policy alternative to Obamacare in which Americans could either choose ObamaCare or say, Romney/BoehnerCare, and then refer to Obamacare withering on the vine when everyone abandons it via choice, then I'll pull out all my MC Hammer cds and party like it's 1997.

  • amelia||

    Do you really have MC Hammer CDs? No judgement here, I'm just wondering.

  • ||

    I have MC Hammer on cassette tape somewhere.

    Sadly, I do not have a tape player.

  • Eitan||

    For whatever it's worth, Rand Paul has been trying to seem more moderate than Ted Cruz on the shutdown. It seems that even the left wing media has picked up on this as I've read a couple articles that contrast the two.

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  • Cytotoxic||

    1) The argument here rests on the premise that the pre-94 GOP was 'libertarian-ish'. Can anyone comment on this? I find it hard to believe, especially with Gingrich being the supposed standard bearer of this small-government GOP. Seems a lot more plausible to blame the problems of the GOP in the '90s on Gingrich's awfulness and then note that the blame was shifted to libertarians, because that's our place.

    2) Welchy, enough with the poll pimping. Every article you write has a variation of MUH POLLZ at least five times. These polls tell us nothing. Actually, they tell us that gun control can be a political winner.

  • Caleb Turberville||

    Libertarianism probably suffered more just from the association with the 1994 midterm elections. It seems that in the 80s, libertarianism had a sort of intellectual and reformist appearance about it, possibly as a result of the association with academics such as Milton Friedman and his documentary series Free to Choose.

    By the 90s, with the combined rise of Limbaugh, Gingrich, and the media fixation on the right-wing militia, libertarianism began to be lumped in with the "angry white male" stereotype, as portrayed by Michael Douglas in Falling Down.

  • 11bravo||

    I think you are mostly correct. I find Ron Paul did more damage to Libertarians in the eyes of everyday folk (grown-ups).
    Ron was just too kooky for most people - sorry to say it. Getting a bunch of college kids excited about getting the man to leave their dope alone is one thing, but appealing to the people more generally - he was a dud.

  • JeremyR||

    Was it even a bunch? His biggest influence on young people was probably that "It's Happening" gif that people drag out all the time.

  • Kyfho Myoba||

    The drug issue is/was not Ron Pauls appeal. Foreign and monetary policy are what fuel his crowds. When he gives a sound bite about ending the Fed, or bringing all the troops home, they go freakin' nuts. When he mentions dope, meh, normal applause.

  • Paul.||

    1) The argument here rests on the premise that the pre-94 GOP was 'libertarian-ish'. Can anyone comment on this?

    If I recall my hazy 1990s memories, that was during the Contract with America (much hated by the media elite) which contained a lot of limited government text.
    Seems a lot more plausible to blame the problems of the GOP in the '90s on Gingrich's awfulness and then note that the blame was shifted to libertarians, because that's our place.

    Gingrich became awful, especially the more and longer we knew him. He rushed into Congress on a wave of anti-clinton, anti-government sentiment, and went out after a long coordinated anti-Gingrich campaign orchestrated by the media. My estimation of Gingrich is the media never hated him more when he preached smaller government, and they have a fondness for him when he just spews neocon platitudes. Because Bigger Government is at least something Gingrich and the MSM can agree on.

    Anyone remember 'Wither on the Vine'? That was probably the Biggest Smear (or Big Lie) that a politician ever suffered in my lifetime. After Gingrich left office, he became a kind of biggish government neocon leaving no one left to like him.

  • Caleb Turberville||

    When it comes to "Big Lies" nothing beats the Johnson campaign's accusation that a Goldwater presidency would lead to a Nuclear Apocalypse.

  • Paul.||

    The wither on the vine campaign was a demonstrable obfuscation on what Gingrich said. It was supported and maintained.

    Say what you will about Gingrich (and I'm not fan), but that was a concerted effort by the democrats and the dem-op media to jam him on Medicare reform.

    The Johnson campaign message was mean-spirited and "untrue", but unprovably untrue just as it was unprovably true. With Gingrich, all you had to do is hear the whole paragraph, and what he said had nothing to do with what the MSM was implying.

  • Caleb Turberville||

    Gee, all this talk about Gingrich is making me super nostalgic for the 90s. I was just a kid then, so all of this is pretty much beyond my expertise...But I do remember playing Mortal Kombat II on the SNES, watching Dumb and Dumber, and listening to 90s Eurodance music (Real McCoy, Culture Beat, etc.) on the Top 40 radio station.

    ...I was kinda aware of the politics at the time, but for me, Gingrich and Clinton are both associated with the SNES and Eurodance the same way Reagan and Tip O'Neill are associated with the Atari 2600 and the New Wave for a kid that grew up in the 80s.

  • Paul.||

    Obama has made me nostalgic for Clinton. Yes, he's just that bad.

  • Caleb Turberville||

    ...I also remember that 1995 was the last time you could buy a remastered, but unaltered VHS print of the Original Star Wars Trilogy. I got that for my birthday that year, and after the Special Editions came out, I was bitterly unimpressed.

  • Paul.||

    See what smaller government gets you? Take that glibertarians!

  • Caleb Turberville||

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zKr5R1VNPjI "...One last time."

    Have you ever seen Newt Gingrich and George Lucas in the same room?...Well, have you?!

  • B.P.||

    I recall having NPR on in the car, while one of their earnest-sounding talkers (Scott Simon?) ruefully read the names of dozens of government agencies and programs that were going to get whacked by the crazed budget-cutters, in a tone similar to the reading of a list of victims lost in a terrorist attack.

  • Paul.||

    If you're referring to the 90s, yes, NPR never had its panties more bunched than during that era.

  • jace||

    I recall a female correspondent on NPR start a piece with "in last year's failed health care debate..." -
    I guess in 2010 the health care debate was FTW!
    Hillarycare 0. Obamacare 1.

  • Rufus J. Firefly||

    I remember when funding was cut for Tele-Quebec a few years back and cultural leftists went apeshit about how it was going to destroy the ability to produce (shitty) art. Some even went as far as to warn against American cultural invasion - as if that hasn't already happened. They still talk as if it's 1804.

    Anyway. I met one of those people affected by the cut. It was less about what the ramifications would be and more about "how could the government do this to me?"

    In any event, the province moves on.

    No signs of cultural (whatever that means) destruction.

  • VG Zaytsev||

    The argument here rests on the premise that the pre-94 GOP was 'libertarian-ish'. Can anyone comment on this?

    Yeah it's pure bullshit.

    Both the country and the republican party were more favorable to large government at the time and government was smaller than it is today.

    Also, the republicans had not held a majority in the HoR since 1951 (or something) and definitely had an inferiority complex / lack of respectability that they don't have at this point in time; which made them less inclined to small government positions than they currently are (as weak as that may be). Go look at the contract with America Basically it just promises that Congress will vote on not necessarily enact a series of reforms regarding Congressional corruption.

    Welchy, enough with the poll pimping. Every article you write has a variation of MUH POLLZ at least five times. These polls tell us nothing. Actually, they tell us that gun control can be a political winner.

    This is the part of the beltway myopia that bugs me the most. It's complete bullshit. No one is going to vote in 14 on how the Rs handled the shutdown today. It's pure horseshit designed to intimidate them into conformity.

  • Paul.||

    Also, the republicans had not held a majority in the HoR since 1951 (or something) and definitely had an inferiority complex / lack of respectability that they don't have at this point in time; which made them less inclined to small government positions than they currently are (as weak as that may be). Go look at the contract with America Basically it just promises that Congress will vote on not necessarily enact a series of reforms regarding Congressional corruption.

    The sudden 'takeover' of Congress by the GOP in '94 cannot be understated, which is why the Media had such a complete freakout. They had finally taken the presidency after 12 years of Reagan/Bush, so the GOP route in Congress was seen as a slap in the face to their mandate.

    Anything that even smacked of smaller government was attacked, and attacked bitterly, including the Contract with America, which was a fairly light-fare document about an attempt to reign in some of Government's profligacy.

  • 11bravo||

    Eerily similar to 2010 - I agree.
    The media-up until Obama caved-today were getting wound up like my dog when she sees a squirrel out the window. The frenzy for pushing the narrative of "the GOP shutdown" was reaching a fever pitch. I thought Andrea Mitchell was going to have an aneurism on air!
    Conservative libertarian victories have a way of doing that to the press.

  • DarrenM||

    No one is going to vote in 14 on how the Rs handled the shutdown today.

    The point is to drive home a narrative into the consciousness of the ill-informed (to put it charitably) voters, not to actually convince anyone today. The Democrats can cash in on this in the election campaigns. That's what give the media power.

  • Robert||

    Today's Gingrich is much less libertarian than the Gingrich of 1994, or certainly of the 1980s, was. The Contract With America, albeit highly crafted, had nothing for libertarians to get upset about, and much to applaud.

    IIRC it was shortly afterward that Don Ernsberger did his tabulation of Congress that revealed to his surprise that Republicans in office (matching those at the grass roots) were overwhelmingly more libertarian than were Democrats (and at the grass roots more so than indepdendents). He got it published in LP News, which in those days was substantially less partyarch than it became shortly afterward.

  • Bruce Majors||

    Is poll love deeply Freudian?

  • Winston||

    So the proper way to avoid a libertarian purge is to cave to the Dems? The libertarian moment is at hand!

  • Paul.||

    Not to sound bitter or anything, but to sound bitter, the GOP does suffer from one rather major drawback in that they not only have to fight the Democrats, they also have to fight the thoughtul, deep reporting of the MSM.

    When you've got a large media machine whose collective hive-mind isn't even wired to understand a non-government solution to a human problem, the second the GOP actually goes smaller-government, the media backlash is horrendous, swift and violent.

    That, in my opinion is why the GOP is wary of the small-government elements in its midst. The career guys don't want to lose their jobs due to a few rabble-rousers.

  • 11bravo||

    I agree!! Keep Pushing!!

  • Bruce Majors||

    It's a strategic move, to do outreach to MSNBC viewers?

  • Winston||

    And all the stuff about polls is pretty disingenuous since Christ Christie polls better than Rand Paul and even if Rand were to win 2016 it's not like any remotely libertarian agenda he tried to pass would be polling well.

  • Robert||

    I'm not sure whether this goes against or in favor of your point, but if you look at the things that most people (not radical libertarians) think of as on the public policy agenda, Chris Christie and Rand Paul are on the same side in the great majority of cases.

  • Kyfho Myoba||

    Bullshit. CC is a big gubbmint neocon. He only mouths freedom.

  • Winston||

    I think Matt Welch and John Boehner should buy the Cleveland Browns so they can let me down again.

  • Paul.||

    Speaking of polls, if I recall my Parker Posie movie catalog, all the major polls shows Democrats hanging onto, or gaining seats in 1994-- which led to the stunned reaction from media pundits everywhere when this frumpy-suit guy named Gingrich showed up on the scene. How dare he?

  • The Last American Hero||

    Your memory is good. The media and the Dems failed to see the over-reach they made in 92-93. In particular, Hillarycare. Clinton campaigned moderate, swung hard left after being sworn in, reached too far in 93, got bitch-slapped in 94 and learned his lesson in time to ride the economic boom in 96.

  • DarrenM||

    If Hillarycare was 'overreach', what do you call Obamacare?

  • Palin's Buttplug||

    Hillarycare was single payer - far far worse than O'Romneycare.

  • Robert||

    No, Hillarycare wasn't single payer. It was on the German model, using health alliances—a complicated carteliz'n of insurers via something close to monopsony.

  • ||

    "Reacharound"

  • bassjoe||

    This entire shutdown drama is a total bunch of BS.

    Our government has been amazingly incompetently run for at least two decades. I blame both parties; I have no desire to apportion the blame as there is no need. The Demoncrats and Rethuglicans are utterly useless to this country; I don't even know whom they work for anymore because it's not any of us.

    Just to name the horrors unleashed upon this country since 2000:

    1. An endless War on Terror, with multiple wars against/in other countries "paid" for with credit
    2. a prescription drug benefit that was unfunded and designed to enrich the drug companies
    3. an education mandate based on nothing more than wishful thinking that was unpaid for AND forces all children to "learn" how to pass standardized tests every couple years
    4. a healthcare law enforced by a tax mandate whose savings to society/government are (at best) debatable AND seems to only exist to support the health insurance companies' bottom lines

    I mean, seriously, our government is a joke. BOTH parties have promised us incredibly amazing things -- affordable healthcare, great education, killing the terrorists wherever they might be, etc. -- and have proven themselves completely unwilling to find a way to pay for them. It's bad enough that these things were even promised and then passed but AT LEAST HAVE THE DAMNED BALLS TO PASS A FUNDING MECHANISM.

    Seriously.

  • NotAnotherSkippy||

    The funding mechanism is to raise taxes and make them more "fair." Haven't you been paying attention since the 30's?

  • bassjoe||

    Okay, raising taxes would be preferable to the dysfunctional and insane BS we have now. How we've managed to go a decade+ paying for shiny new expensive things on our credit card without our spending privileges being revoked is beyond me.

  • Kyfho Myoba||

    You are clearly incorrect. NOTHING is less preferable than raising taxes.

  • Bruce Majors||

    I live in DC about 8 blocks from the White House. So far here is what I see of the shutdown: Obama looking like Mussolini closing open spaces; straight bars full of overpaid 'crats drinking all afternoon and late into the night trying to get laid; gay bars full of overpaid 'crats looking to get laid and drinking all afternoon; all the speech impediment Dems - Harris-Parry, Dionne, Robinson, Klein - mouth farting as usual.

  • ||

    Barf. I'd rather go down swinging than wuss out just to stay atop of public opinion. At least then, it can never be said that we didn't tell you so. In the long run, people will see that life without the parts of government being shut down is infinitely better than life with it. More opportunity, more choice, more freedom.

  • ||

    For one thing, the country is just considerably more libertarian these days

    LOL!

    I never get tired of hearing Gillespie and Welch trot this hilarious trope out. How is "Declaration of Independents" selling, btw?

  • Winston||

    Doesn't the shutdown pretty disprove the libertarian moment?

  • 11bravo||

    It has been doing gangbusters since 2009/10.

  • XM||

    "Given the long-overdue energy and inventiveness they've brought to politics and policy these past few years, here's hoping they haven't sown the seeds of their future demise."

    Let's hope the libertarian-ish "Wacko birds" Republicans haven't shot themselves on the foot for shutting down the government that libertarians think was the right thing to do?

  • Winston||

    Apparently Welch thinks the libertarian-ish "Wacko birds" should be more establishment in order to be re-elected. This will the GOP more libertarian or something.

  • Bruce Majors||

    Ken Cucinelli is hiding from the shutdown issue and he isn't doing well.

  • Winston||

    Is Cucinelli the kind of Republican you want to see elected?

  • 11bravo||

    Hopefully we are just getting started. I do not think the Tea Party has overplayed shit. It is the establishment that won't take the ball and run with it.
    They are still listening to Krystal and Brooks waaaay too much! Their snooty elitist conservatism tells them to never raise their voice to a socialist who is lying through their teeth while sitting next to them and Snuffluphagus on This Week. Because the facts are on their side they will tell you; as the socialists are basically out doing doughnuts on their front lawns (Iowahawk) and winning the argument, and elections.
    Americans like a fighter, and a good fight!

  • thebitterconsumer||

    Might as well learn some civics

    http://thebitterconsumer.wordp.....vics-once/

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  • Bruce Majors||

    What issue of importance would not be spun by the media so as to make libertarians look bad?

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