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 Center
Pew Research Center

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, 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."

As McCain wrote in his 2001 campaign memoir Worth the Fighting For,

I welcomed a greater, if still limited, role for government in national problems, anathema to the "leave us alone" libertarian philosophy that dominated Republican debates in the 1990s. So did George W. Bush, I must add, who challenged libertarian orthodoxy with his appeal for a "compassionate conservatism." He based much of his more activist government philosophy in an expanded role for the federal government in education policy and in his support for contributions that small, faith-based organizations could make to the solution of social problems. I gave more attention to national service and to a bigger role for government as a restraining force on selfish interests that undermined national unity. But his positions did him much credit, as well they should have, and they do him much credit now as he uses his presidency to advance them.

If you include Mitt Romney, who built his presidential campaign around the principle of never mentioning any specific government line item to cut, the Republican Party has for 15 years been headed up by politicians whose governing ideology is "anathema to the 'leave us alone' libertarian philosophy." The question is, why did that happen?

Certainly, many Republicans believed at the time (and many still believe to this day) something close to the liberal/media narrative that the '95-96 shutdown made confrontational fiscal conservatism toxic to voters. There is also the not-insubstantial matter of the April 1995 bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City by the anti-government terrorist Timothy McVeigh, an act that Reason Books Editor Jesse Walker has described as being "at least as important" as the shutdown in changing the country's political dynamic. "[It] allowed Clinton's supporters to play up the 'extreme' anti-government rhetoric coming from Gingrich's supporters in the talk radio right, and to link it to the 'extremism' of McVeigh and the militias," Walker wrote.

Ultimately, neither the compassionate conservatives nor the re-branded neoconservatives could have reasserted tag-team control of the Republican Party had significant segments of public opinion not been on their side. The Class of '94's final insult was the 1998 elections, when the impeachment-focused GOP became the only opposition party in the 20th century to lose ground in a second-term president's midterm election. When a Compassionate Conservative narrowly beat out Al Gore in 2000, and then adopted a National Greatness foreign policy in the wake of 9/11, the writing was on the wall. By 2004, David Brooks was performing an end-zone dance on "small-government conservatism."

It is far too simplistic to draw a straight line between the Gingrich/Clinton shutdown and the GOP's purge of its libertarianism from 1998-08, let alone apply the lessons from that to the government shutdown of 2013. For one thing, the country is just considerably more libertarian these days; plus, Barack Obama is no Bill Clinton, and the sex/impeachment scandal may go down in history as a true Black Swan event.

But public opinion does matter in politics, as tautological as that is to say, and the GOP's Wacko Birds remain on the wrong side of it when it comes to their role in shutting down the federal government. 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.