Drawing the Wrong Lesson from the Clinton Era

by John J. Pitney, Jr.

In The New Yorker, George Packer looks favorably upon President Obama’s confrontational approach toward congressional Republicans. Packer draws a lesson from President Clinton’s experience during the shutdowns of 1995–1996: “Confrontation over principles sent the President’s poll numbers up, as triangulation never did, and he coasted to reëlection in 1996.”

But as Nate Silver recently pointed out at the New York Times blog FiveThirtyEight, things did not actually play out that way: “The shutdowns seemed to create some volatility in Mr. Clinton’s approval rating. During the course of the second shutdown in particular, his approval rating declined by about 10 points in the Gallup poll from start to finish, although the impact was less than that in polls issued by other agencies.”

President Clinton’s ratings went back up after he reached a budget agreement with the Republicans. His major accomplishment during the months ahead would be welfare reform. Though he vetoed two earlier versions, he eventually signed a reform bill that enjoyed far more support from Republicans than Democrats. On the final vote in the House, Republicans backed the measure 230–2, while Democrats split 98–98. ‘’My President will boldly throw one million into poverty,” thundered Rep. Charlie Rangel.

President Clinton scored points against Republicans, to be sure, but he also made substantive and rhetorical concessions. It’s hard to argue that the lesson of 1996 is no-compromise liberalism.

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