President Obama’s demagogic remarks last Friday about how Republicans want to “deny health care to 30 million people” seemed designed to make congressional Republicans take the one step that will enable Obama to reverse his sliding approval ratings: threatening a government shutdown in a vain attempt to defund Obamacare. Let’ see: Congress, with an approval rating in the single digits, is going to stare down a president who will have the entire media cheering him on?
The sheer implausibility of this idea is being abetted by some revisionist history that the famous government shutdown of 1995/96 didn’t actually hurt Republicans, conveniently forgetting somehow that it was the turning point in Bill Clinton’s fortunes for re-election. (Phil Gramm said shortly after that the only mistake of that episode was re-opening the government again. Fun line, but I heard Gramm recant it a couple of years ago.)
Ramesh Ponnuru takes this dubious enthusiasm apart in his latest Bloomberg column:
Republicans thought they had lost, too. A minority of them thought that they should have kept the government shuttered longer, and that Gingrich and Senate Republican leader Bob Dole had caved. (Gingrich was widely reported at the time to have told unhappy colleagues, “I melt when I’m around him,” referring to Clinton.) Most of them decided that bringing on a shutdown at all was a mistake.
It’s true, as Gingrich now says, that Republicans lost only a few House seats in the next election. But it’s also true that the shutdowns ended what had been called the “Republican revolution” of the mid-1990s. Before the shutdowns, the Republicans had talked about eliminating four cabinet departments. Afterward, they quit. . .
While Clinton’s poll numbers improved after the shutdowns, Gingrich’s declined. After he lost his job as speaker, the Gallup Organization reviewed his generally low ratings in office and concluded, “The public appeared to turn particularly strongly against the Speaker after his budget confrontation with Bill Clinton and the resulting U.S. Government shutdown in late 1995.” Through most of the next two years, it noted, people who viewed Gingrich unfavorably outnumbered those who viewed him favorably by almost 2-to-1. That unpopularity, of course, contributed mightily to his losing the job at the hands of his Republican colleagues.
Republicans shouldn’t take Obama’s bait. A better strategy would be to nick Obamacare in a couple of key places that would be popular with voters and which would be hard for Obama to defend. Like a suspension of the individual mandate. And go back to talking about the economy and other scandals.