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Cautionary Tale in Shutdown for Both President and Speaker

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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.