Since a government shutdown this year looks very likely, what are the lessons that the GOP can learn from 1995?
1. First and foremost, Republicans should keep passing bills to reopen the entire government. They should stress that they want the government open and explain that it is only closed because of Harry Reid’s obstinate support for big government and/or Barack Obama’s use of his veto pen on behalf of special interests.
2. Keep passing bills to reopen the parts of the government that voters actually care about, such as VA hospitals, the Social Security Administration, and national parks. Simply stated, some government workers get classified as “non-essential,” but they do things people actually care about. Those are the parts of the government that GOPers should specifically seek to open, while leaving places such as the Department of Housing and Urban Development shuttered (ideally, on a permanent basis).
3. Remember that a government shutdown generally puts more financial pressure on the Left. If there is a lengthy showdown, Democratic constituencies begin to squeal. The establishment press will portray this as a GOP problem, but it really means more pressure on Democrats to find agreement.
4. Speaking of the establishment press, don’t let them define the issues. In 1995, Republicans had to deal with a very hostile press corps. There was no Fox News, no Internet as we know it today, and no cadre of talk-radio hosts to augment Rush Limbaugh. So while it is true that CBS, NBC, ABC, CNN, the New York Times, and the Washington Post will regurgitate Democratic talking points, many voters will have access to conservative news sources, something that was not the case in 1995.
With Harry Reid in charge of the Senate and Obama in the White House, it is very unlikely that House Republicans will win a clear-cut victory in this battle. But so long as they show real commitment and extract real concessions, they will accomplish three things that are very important.
First, they will slightly reduce the burden of government spending. It will be only a small slice, but after ten years of irresponsible spending by Bush and Obama, that’s no trivial achievement.
Second, they will keep faith with the Tea Party activists and other voters who sent them to Washington to limit the size and scope of the federal government. This will keep the conservative base from getting dispirited and tuning out, as happened during the Bush years.
Third, they will set a good tone for future budget battles, including the 2012 budget this spring, the debt-limit fight this summer, and the appropriations fight this fall. A Republican surrender today, by contrast, would make it almost impossible to prevail in any subsequent fights.
To put it simply, Republicans need to hold firm and fight hard. There is no alternative.
— Daniel J. Mitchell is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute.