Revisiting the Clinton-Gingrich Showdown

by Ramesh Ponnuru

John Pitney Jr. writes: “The president won the perception war for a couple of reasons. First, he and his party showed great message discipline in repeating the claim that the Republicans shut down the government. Second, while the Democrats had one clear leader who set the party line, the Republicans spoke with multiple voices. Some even celebrated the shutdown. And Speaker Newt Gingrich did not help matters when he complained that the president had snubbed him on a flight to the Middle East.” All true, but there was one other reason: Republicans are the more anti-government party in the public mind. The message that the Republicans had shut down the government out of zeal was thus an easier sell than the message that the Democrats had shut it down for tactical reasons. Apolitical people, asked to guess which party had shut down the government, would naturally gravitate to the answer “the Republicans.”

Republicans had a similar problem on the substance of the dispute. They could say every other sentence that they wanted only to “save Medicare” — a message Fred Barnes is now urging them to revisit — but the public was not predisposed to believe that the Republicans were trying to save the program and that Democrats were standing in the way. It just didn’t sound right.

But maybe everything has changed, as I keep hearing, and things will work out differently this time.