A tweet from House Majority Leader Eric Cantor the other day (March 28):
If @SenatorReid @ChuckSchumer force gov to partially shut down b/c they oppose sensible spending cuts, Americans will hold them accountable
Dream on, Congressman. Americans won't blame Democrats like Harry Reed and Chuck Schumer. They'll blame Republicans like you.
One day in August of 1995, Paul Begala went jogging with President Bill Clinton at Fort Myer, the military facility near Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. "It was humid and hot," Begala recalled. "Both of us had gained a lot of weight during the campaign and both of us were losing it -- we were proud of that, two fat boys trying to jog off the fat."
Begala, looking at the upcoming negotiations over the federal budget, spoke to Clinton of the attitude among Congressional Republicans: "Newt and those guys think they can roll you."
"They can't think that," the president responded.
"Yeah, they think they're going to roll you, in particular on the Medicare cuts."
"I couldn't be that lucky. That's going to give me a Gary Cooper moment." Clinton's favorite movie, Begala told me, is High Noon. "They wouldn't be that stupid. That's the easiest kind of leadership. I just say no and I win. The harder thing is if they want to make a deal and then I've got to compromise."
"Sure enough," Begala said, "it all played out exactly as he said. November comes around, they come in with the budget, and he points to that desk, the Resolute. He tells Dick Armey, 'If you want somebody to sign this budget you're going to have to put another president behind that desk, because I will never do it.'"
When the Republicans refused to pass another temporary spending bill (a "continuing resolution"), the government shut down. As citizens watched B-roll footage of unsent Social Security checks and padlocked national parks, they blamed the mess on Gingrich and his band of House flamethrowers. As Clinton & Co. sought reelection the following year they tied the unpopular speaker around the neck of the GOP nominee, Bob Dole, and the president cruised to victory.
Piece of cake -- just as it can be now for Barack Obama.
If Bill Clinton was Marshal Will Kane, the virtuous lawman played by Gary Cooper in the 1952 western, in Newt Gingrich he faced a made-to-order Frank Miller, the outlaw determined to lead his gang in gunning down the marshal and busting up the law and order he'd brought to the frontier. Today's speaker of the House, John Boehner, is not the perfect villain that his predecessor was (and remains); Boehner's perpetual weepiness is odd but he does not display the antic megalomania that causes Gingrich to vomit up one comment after another - We're headed for a secular-atheist. Islamic-fundamentalist regime; The reason I ditched two sick wives is my patriotism; earlier, It's the Democrats' fault that Woody Allen took up with Mia Farrow's daughter - that manages to be as inane as it is revolting.
Nor does Boehner seem, at heart, to be the extremist that Gingrich is. Boehner appears to be more the 2011 version of the 1995 Bob Dole, then the Senate majority leader. Dole looked on, aghast, at Gingrich's headlong march off a political cliff, but he saw no choice other than to go along - running for the 1996 presidential nomination he could afford no daylight between himself and Gingrich, a demigod in the eyes of the Republican Party's primary electorate. One imagines that Boehner, left to his own devices, would prefer to compromise with the president rather than force a shutdown, if not because he harbors sincere concern for the ordinary Americans who might be hurt by Uncle Sam's closing its doors, then because he foresees that public disgust over the train wreck will be directed mainly at him and his party. But he's hamstrung by the GOP's uncouth bedmate, the Tea Party, which reviles him - check out the Facebook page, Tea Partiers Against John Boehner - for entertaining the possibility that its goals might not soon be achieved in their purest form. Gingrich was saddled with a rabid freshman class to which he had to toss the occasional bone, but old and new members of his caucus credited him as their Moses, leading the GOP to a House majority after (literally) forty years in the wilderness. When public discontent eventually led him to call off the shutdown, therefore, there was no question that he could bulldoze the caucus into following him. By contrast, Boehner has to deal with 40-some freshmen who feel they owe their election, and their loyalty, not to Boehner or the Republican establishment but to the quasi-independent movement the GOP rode to a majority last November. That's the problem with riding a tiger: at some point the tiger wants to ride you.
Even without the cartoon villain Clinton enjoyed, Obama can turn the budget negotiations and the shutdown to his advantage without much heavy lifting. He doesn't even have to think the problem through - he can simply follow Bill Clinton's 1995 playbook. After the 1994 midterm losses, Clinton & Co. undertook a concerted campaign to manage the public's perception of Gingrich. "Over and over again," recalls Mike McCurry, then White House press secretary, "we used the words 'radical' and 'extreme' interchangeably to discuss the priorities of the new Republican leadership in Congress." The rhetorical battle was waged not just by aides but by the president himself. Day after day. Relentlessly. Clinton didn't mind dirtying his hands in daily political combat - indeed, he relished it.
Obama, it seems, prefers to keep his hands unsoiled. His moderation may serve him well: if and when he finally does start calling out the Republicans in forceful language, the public won't be able to avoid recognizing what the radical, extreme Republicans did to make Mr. Reasonable finally blow his stack. But he needs to make a conscious, sustained effort at winning the argument. If Obama is not the natural tribune of the middle class Clinton was, he is a natural teacher. The educator-in-chief needs to make sure that the public understands just what the GOP is trying to do.
The lesson plan writes itself. Once more, let's go to the videotape. In 1995 Gingrich & Co. proposed to cut $270 billion in Medicare over five years. They also called for tax cuts, largely benefitting the wealthy, totaling $240 billion over the same period. The near 1:1 correspondence between the two numbers handed Clinton a ready-made argument that "the congressional majority appears to be choosing for the first time ever to use the benefits we provide under Medicare . . . as a piggybank to fund huge tax cuts for people who don't really need them."
"My fellow Americans," he said, "this is a big fight."
In 1995 Medicare was the hammer with which Clinton repeatedly beat the Republicans over the head. No doubt with that history in mind, the Republicans this time won't touch America's favorite government program with a ten-thousand-foot pole. No matter. There's more than enough in current GOP proposals for Obama to latch onto as he makes his case that he is the only thing standing in the way of a bunch of marauding ideologues.
He can start with this chart (created by Donna Cooper of the Center for American Progress), which details $44 billion the Republicans intend to cut from the annual budget for a variety of safety-net programs and compares it to the $42 billion it costs for a year's worth of extending the Bush tax cuts for the rich. If preserving the general "safety-net" makes for a tough sell to a public suspicious of welfare freeloaders, the president can look to some of the chart's specifics. Here's my favorite: $4.1 billion cut from "job training for unemployed and new workers" vs. $4.1 billion spent on "tax breaks for offshore operations of U.S. financial companies." If the president can't sell that one, he should find a new line of work.
There's more: $850 million in aid to state and local law enforcement, close to $1 billion for clean water, $53 million for food safety. Imagine the photo ops for each of these. The Republicans are proposing everything but skinning the Easter bunny to make purses for landlords to carry the gold coins they gain by putting widows and orphans out on the street.
Last fall Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, speaking of his goals for the new Congress, said, "The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president." By the time the government reopened, in early 1996, after the second of two shutdowns, Bill Clinton's reelection was in the bag. Obama, without breaking a sweat, can ensure the same result for himself in 2012.
His "Gary Cooper moment" is approaching; he should let the Miller gang have its shutdown. As citizens in 2011 watch B-roll footage of unsent Social Security checks and padlocked national parks, they will blame the mess on John Boehner and his band of flamethrowers. Dick Armey, who in 1995 occupied the job of House majority leader now held by Eric Cantor, told me why: "It is incongruous to the general public political awareness to think that Democrats would shut down government; Democrats love government. It is perfectly reasonable for them to understand that Republicans shut down government; Republicans don't like government." In 1995, says Armey, he warned Gingrich, "If there's a government shutdown or anything that looks like it, we're going to get the blame."
"Dumbest thing Newt ever did was shut down the government," Bob Dole said to me. " If there was ever any doubt about Clinton's reelection - probably wasn't much - there wasn't after that.
"Dumb, dumb, dumb."
Eric Cantor, John Boehner, you're making a big mistake.
The original version of this post mistakenly identified Soon Yi Previn as the stepdaughter of Mia Farrow.