Somehow, it seems appropriate that talk of a Newt Gingrich presidential bid coincide with talk of a government shutdown, because that moment in 1995 represented either the apex or the beginning of the tumbles for then-Speaker Gingrich.
Gingrich recently took to the Washington Post to argue that the shutdown, in fact, represented a triumph for Republicans at the time and moving forward:
The Washington establishment believes that the government shutdown of 1995 was a disastrous mistake that accomplished little and cost House Republicans politically. The facts are exactly the opposite.
While the shutdown produced some short-term pain, it set the stage for a budget deal in 1996 that led to the largest drop in federal discretionary spending since 1969. The discipline imposed by this budget – overall spending grew at an average of 2.9 percent a year while I was speaker of the House, the slowest rate in decades – allowed us to reach a balanced-budget deal in 1997.
This would all have been impossible had Republicans not stood firm in 1995 and shown the American people (and the White House) that we were serious about reducing spending. This historic success was not an achievement of the Clinton administration.
There’s a fascinatingly negative portrait of Gingrich in Tom DeLay’s autobiography, No Retreat, No Surrender and his assessment of Gingrich’s leadership during the shutdowns is scathing:
Meetings and negotiations took place all over Washington, and still a government shutdown loomed. It was during this time that some of my staff began to notice that Gingrich wasn’t the tough guy he had presented himself to be. One of my senior staff members in those days, Tony Rudy, reported, “The Clinton White House figured out how to play Newt. They would put the Time magazine cover with Newt as Man of the Year on the coffee table in front of where they would have Newt sit. Newt would come back into leadership meetings from the White House and tell us how the White House understood his signficance. And people would look around and say to themselves, ‘have you lost your mind?’ I believe the Clinton people suspected they could manipulate Newt through appeal to his ego, because they were used to appealing to Clinton’s ego. Apparently the tactic worked on Newt as well.
Negotiations spiraled downward, and after Clinton vetoed a stopgap spending bill, funding for government services ran out, and a shutdown began on November 13, 1995. Not long after, Gingrich made the mistake of his life. He told a room full of reporters that he forced the shutdown because Clinton had ruledly made him and Bob Dole sit at the back of Air Force One and exit from the rear on a flight to the funeral of assassinated Israeli prime minister Yitzak Rabin. It was pitiful. The New York Daily News carried the headline “Cry Baby” above a drawing of Newt as a screaming baby in diapers. The Democrats even tried to take a blowup of the cover onto the floor of the House. Newt had been careless to say such a thing, and now the whole moral tone of the shutdown had been lost. What had been a noble battle for fiscal sanity began to look like the tirade of a spoiled child…
DeLay then describes the second government shutdown, a few weeks later:
Big government had been feeding at the public trough too long, and we were in a position to put it on a diet – a drastic diet if necessary. I was willing to stay the course. I believed the long-term good outweighed any short-term pain. And I believed that Clinton was essentially spineless and would capitulate under political pressure if we just stuck to our guns. I was shocked then with what I heard from my television on Sunday evening in January as I was grilling steaks for some members in my condo. The news reproted that Bob Dole was saying, “Enough is enough.” The senior Republican in the Senate had caved in. Gingrich soon followed him.
No one leads in Washington without making mistakes and making enemies. But if Newt Gingrich is to become the Republican nominee for president in 2012, he will have to explain what he’s learned from past decisions that many Republicans still consider to be mistakes.