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Cautionary Tale in Shutdown for Both President and Speaker

Steven M. Gillon   |   October 4, 2013   11:19 AM ET

The last government shutdown in 1995 offers cautionary lessons for both sides in the current standoff.

The two men at the center of the last shutdown, Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich, shared a closer, but also more explosive, personal relationship then the protagonists in the current Washington drama. Yet even they managed to stumble into an unwanted shutdown.

Then, as now, miscalculation and misunderstanding -- and a large degree of hubris -- helped create the crisis. For all of their superficial pleasantries and private conversations, Gingrich and Clinton did not really understood each other, and they remained supremely confident in their ability to dominate the other. Gingrich accepted the popular view circulating among Republicans that the president lacked backbone. Privately, he dismissed him as "a frat boy who reads books." Fresh off winning a major victory in the 1994 midterm elections, he believed he could force a chastened president to accept a balanced budget in seven years. His whole strategy was based on the unquestioned belief that Clinton lacked the backbone for a budget battle and that the public supported his conservative agenda -- even if it meant painful sacrifice.

For his part, Clinton was confident that he could manipulate Gingrich's ambition and grandiosity and turn it to his advantage. He understood that Gingrich needed to be seen as a rebel, but that he also wanted to be taken seriously as a member of the Washington establishment. He sensed that, despite his tough public posture, Gingrich was in many ways very needy and eager to please.

Their mutual misunderstandings led to two government shutdowns. Clinton proved more resourceful and stubborn than Gingrich had expected. Anyone who had studied Clinton's career would have known that his affable exterior disguised a tough and resilient core. Against the advice of liberals in his own party, Clinton embraced the Republican goal of achieving a balanced budget, but he insisted that basic Democratic programs be protected. At the same time, while Clinton may have accurately diagnosed Gingrich's private psychology, he failed to appreciate the fervor and anger of the Republican caucus that was in no mood for making deals.

We all know that Gingrich and the Republicans paid a heavy political price for their miscalculations. After two shutdowns, public disapproval of the Republican House dropped 20 points, and Gingrich's unpopularity ratings rivaled Richard Nixon's at the depth of the Watergate crisis. Speaker Boehner could confront a similar backlash. Clinton entered the contest as a weak president, but he emerged invigorated and strengthened. Many in the White House are hoping for a similar bump from this confrontation.

The 1995 budget shutdown, however, holds cautionary lessons for President Obama as well. He lacks the ideological wiggle room that Clinton used so brilliantly to frustrate and eventually defeat Gingrich. In the weeks leading up to the shutdown, Clinton triangulated and coopted the Republican message, agreeing to a balanced budget while promising to fight for popular middle class programs. Obama lacks that same flexibility. He cannot embrace the Republican goal of gutting his most significant legislative achievement.

The White House should avoid the mistake of assuming that history will repeat itself and that Obama will be able to dominate Boehner the same way Clinton bested Gingrich. The outcome of that struggle was by no means inevitable. When the government shut its doors for the first time in mid-November 1995, many in the White House, including President Clinton, feared that the public would blame him for the impasse. "I was afraid they'd get away with it," Clinton reflected, "given their success at blaming me for the partisan divide in the '94 election."

Both sides were playing a high stakes poker game. It was unclear who would win.

The 1995 budget showdown could have had a very different ending had Newt Gingrich not made one colossal mistake. While in the final hours of the debate over the budget, Clinton took a delegation of American leaders, including Gingrich and Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, to Israel to attend the funeral of assassinated Israeli leader Yitzhak Rabin. Gingrich assumed that they would use the 25 hours trapped on a plane to hammer out a compromise. But Clinton's advisors plotted to keep them apart, fearing their boss would go searching for a deal. When they landed back in Washington, Dole and Gingrich were forced to exit Air Force One by a rear ramp.

Gingrich was furious. Meeting with reporters after they returned, Gingrich lashed out at Clinton. He told startled reporters that he took a tougher line in the final round of budget negotiations because of the rude treatment on Air Force One. "This is petty," Gingrich confessed. "I'm going to say up front it's petty, but I think it's human. When you land at Andrews and you've been on the plane for 25 hours and nobody has talked to you and they ask you to get off by the back ramp . . . you just wonder, where is their sense of manners, where is their sense of courtesy?"

Gingrich's childish verbal tirade was a public relations disaster for the Republicans. "Cry Baby," screamed the New York Daily News, next to a picture of Gingrich in a diaper. That afternoon, the White House released a photograph of Clinton, Dole, and Gingrich chatting on the plane.

Coming in the second day of the shutdown when public opinion was still malleable, the outburst made Republicans seem petulant and stubborn, while allowing Clinton to appear presidential by comparison. Polls shifted dramatically in the president's favor. Gingrich emboldened the president, angered the pubic, and destroyed the morale of his own troops. The shutdown lingered for a few more days, and another ensued, but the Republicans had lost the debate.

Had the Gingrich temper tantrum not taken place the budget shutdown could have had a very different result. There seems to be a misplaced confidence in the White House today that Republicans always get blamed. That may not be true. Its unlikely that Speaker Boehner will repeat the mistakes of his temperamental predecessor. That means that the political consequences of the shutdown in 2013 could be very different from 1995.

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Chelsea Clinton told CNN Monday that she's purposely shifting towards a more public life.

“I had very much led a deliberately private life for a long time, and now I’m attempting to lead a purposely public life," Clinton said when discussing her recent work with the Clinton Foundation and Clinton Global Initiative.

When asked if this move implied budding political plans, Clinton said, "not now."

"I’m also grateful to live in a city and a state and a country where I really believe in my elected officials, and their ethos and their competencies," she continued. "Someday, if either of those weren’t true, and I thought I could make more of a difference in the public sector, or if I didn’t like how my city or state or country were being run, I’d have to ask and answer that question."

Speculation over Clinton's intent to run for public office has been a topic of conversation for some time. In fact, she gave an almost identical response to the "Today" show when asked about her openness to running for public office in April.

"Right now I'm grateful to live in a city, in a state and a country where I strongly support my mayor, my governor, my president, my senators and my representative," she said. "If at some point that weren't true and I thought I could make a meaningful and measurably greater impact, I'd have to ask and answer that question."

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Are Political Sex Scandals Passé? The Weiner Test Case

Robert Weiss   |   July 28, 2013    5:06 PM ET

They're Back!

Yes, that's former U.S. Congressman Anthony Weiner getting all the attention in the New York City mayoral race. Yes, that's former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer running for New York City comptroller. Yes, that's former U.S. Congressman and South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford once again sitting in the House of Representatives. And yes, that's Bill Clinton who's emerged as an emeritus force in the American political landscape.

So who's next? Should we expect to see Gary Hart, John Edwards, Pete Domenici, Herman Cain, Mark Souder, Larry Craig, Mark Foley and/or any of a hundred or so other politicians of note who've been caught with their pants down (both figuratively and literally) suddenly back in the limelight? In other words, has the "permanently ruinous political sex scandal" gone the way of the dodo bird?

Well, yeah, it pretty much has.

The Weiner Wangle

Let's take a look at one politician in particular, Anthony Weiner, since he's the one getting the most ink, tweets, and airplay these days. In case you've forgotten, Weiner is the former U.S. congressman who resigned from office in June 2011 after he was caught sending a series of digital sexts -- some of which were actually taken in the congressional gym's locker room -- to half a dozen (or more) women. According to Weiner, he'd been engaging in this type of behavior for about three years. And now he's admitted that his sexting activities continued even after his resignation from Congress.

In recent days I've spoken with numerous major media outlets about Weiner's latest revelation, and the basic question is always the same: Why did he continue with his inappropriate sexual behavior even after he was caught? The answer is simple: He might be a sex addict. Think about the gambler who tosses away his kid's college fund at a casino, gets confronted by his wife, and then takes out a loan the next day to gamble some more. Why does he do this? He does it because he's addicted to gambling. Think also about the drinker who gets thrown in jail for drunk driving and then, immediately after being released, heads to the liquor store. Why? Because that's what alcoholics do. The story is no different with Anthony Weiner, except his probable addiction is to sex rather than gambling or booze. The simple, sad truth is that even after they've been caught and are facing potentially severe consequences, addicts typically continue with their problematic behavioral patterns because that is how they cope with life. At best, being "found out" will drive someone with a self-destructive addictive disorder into treatment, where the lengthy and somewhat arduous process of eliminating compulsive behaviors can begin.

So is Weiner's recent revelation the death-knell for his political career? We'll have to wait and see. But let's face it, just two years after sneaking away with his tail between his legs, he's returned and become a mayoral frontrunner in our nation's largest city. And he's achieved this status without the support of the city's Democratic power brokers! That, in and of itself, is utterly amazing. Yes, this recent revelation will likely hurt his cause, but it's not likely to bump him from the race.

So how the heck has Weiner accomplished this remarkable comeback? Amazingly, he's used the same social media networks that led to his downfall. For instance, he announced his mayoral candidacy with an online video. In the video he is seen with his wife and new baby, looking more than a little bit domestic, apparently attempting to create the impression that he is "cured" of whatever it was that ailed him and everything is now just fine, perfectly normal, thank you for asking. His underlying message seems to be: My wife trusts me now, so you should too.

Rather interestingly, very few people seem willing to challenge him on this. He has stated that after his 2011 resignation, he spent three days at the Gabbard Center, an outpatient psychiatric evaluation facility specializing in the assessment of high-end professionals in crisis. The center's website lists "sexual disorders" as being among the major diagnostic groups it assesses. Nevertheless, he adamantly denies having an addictive or compulsive sexual disorder, despite the fact that his highly problematic sexual behavior continued for many months after first being discovered. Regardless of the diagnosis Weiner may or may not have received at Gabbard, a three-day evaluation hardly qualifies as "treatment" for a three-years-plus repetitive pattern of sexual misbehavior. An evaluation simply identifies the issues that need to be worked on and suggests a pathway for change -- no more, no less.

Sadly, Weiner's post-scandal behavior mirrors that of many of the powerful men (and women) we treat in sexual disorders programs. Nearly always these clients are neck-deep in denial about their actions. They create any number of rationalizations to justify their behaviors (in their own mind). Sure, they agree that anybody else engaging in the exact same behaviors would be crazy to do it, but somehow they see themselves as unique, different and entitled. And this sort of misguided thinking often continues even after they've been caught and scandalized, as they stubbornly tell themselves and others any number of lies to justify what they've done (and very often are continuing to do). In the biz, that's what we call DENIAL.

This misguided denial is what we all saw from Anthony Weiner two years ago, and it's what we are continuing to see today. "I'm a new man," he says, but somehow this doesn't ring true. In my professional experience, men and women whose sexual behavior leads them to crash and burn as badly as Weiner did nearly always need intensive residential treatment followed by long-term outpatient recovery, and that needs to occur in an addiction (rather than an analytic or family therapy) setting. This is especially true if the behavior that derailed the person continues after the initial crisis! At the very least, Anthony Weiner should have a solid understanding of the demons he is battling and the recommended path toward recovery. In this regard, he seems to have no clue. Instead, he has called his sexual acting out "a blind spot" that is "in the past."

Seen It, Bored Now

It appears that the American public has become desensitized to the political sex scandal. The more it happens, the less that people seem to care. In many ways this is part and parcel of the digital onslaught. Nowadays cable news stations, websites, Twitter feeds, Facebook, and the like provide an endless barrage of news -- much of it salacious in nature. People seem to require a constant array of "new and different," meaning that our collective memory and our ability to hold a grudge are greatly reduced. Once we were elephants, remembering everything, but nowadays we're gnats and fruit flies. The only reason any of these scandals has a shelf-life longer than a few days or weeks is that the media must sometimes wait for the next indignity to occur. Without something new to report, content-starved media mavens tend to rehash the old stuff in ever-more-titillating ways, even if the public no longer cares. Such is the case with this summer's "Weiner Roast."

There also seems to be a growing realization, with so many people living such large chunks of their lives in the online (hence, public) universe, that the only reason most of us are not in the news like Weiner, Spitzer, Sanford, Clinton and the like is that we're not as famous as they are. In other words, we're beginning to understand that almost everyone engages in regrettable behavior at least occasionally, so judge not lest ye be judged. Or whatever. Basically, if we have jobs and health insurance and the schools are open and taxes aren't too high, we seem to be relatively willing to overlook whatever it is our elected officials are doing between the sheets.

So can politicians do whatever they damn well please and get away with it these days? Probably not. Infidelity seems to no longer be a big deal, even with prostitutes. An abuse of power, however, such as Nevada Sen. John Ensign's affair with an aide, still draws quite a bit of public ire, as does dallying with someone who is underage or a member of the same sex (especially if the politician's power base is conservative).

That said, it seems like almost anyone can make a credible comeback these days. The formula seems to be: acknowledge your mistake (but not that you might have an ongoing problem), insist that your issues are in the past, get your wife or minister to corroborate this, and then take advantage of the name recognition you earned in the midst of your ignominy. And this recipe really does work! In fact, one study of post-Watergate congressional scandals found that nearly three-quarters of the disgraced politicians who decided to run for office again survived their primary, and of those who made it to the general election, 81 percent won.

So here we are. Sanford is back in office, Clinton is a respected elder statesman, and both Weiner and Spitzer have pulled a Stella and gotten their New York groove back. Essentially, it appears that we no longer care all that much about the sexual peccadilloes of our elected representatives. To be honest, I think it's pretty cool that America has gotten a lot more forgiving lately, but can we really trust these guys with our political well-being? Only time will tell.

Robert Weiss LCSW, CSAT-S is Senior Vice President of Clinical Development with Elements Behavioral Health. He has served as a media specialist for CNN, the Oprah Winfrey Network, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the Today Show, among many others. He is author of Cruise Control: Understanding Sex Addiction in Gay Men, and co-author with Dr. Jennifer Schneider of both Untangling the Web: Sex, Porn, and Fantasy Obsession in the Internet Age and the upcoming 2013 release, Closer Together, Further Apart: The Effect of Technology and the Internet on Sex, Intimacy and Relationships.

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