How Government Shutdowns Help America

The government shutdown is probably improving the future of the United States.

That may seem impossible, given the hyperbole flying about the public sphere this week as the partial shutdown of the federal government began.  But understanding why the crisis represents real political progress begins by re-examining the archetypal case study: the 1995 federal government shutdown. 

The traditional media memes tell us that President Clinton destroyed Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich in the classic Democrat-meets-Republican showdown of government shutdowns.  It is upon this template that the Obama team build their current paradigm of argumentation.

But what really happened in 1995?  A Gallup set of surveys illuminates:

1. President Clinton's popularity rating went down by 10%, from 52% before the shutdown to 42% after.

2. Gingrich's approval went up slightly.  You have to read Gallup's fine print in the survey to actually figure this out.

3. Congressional approval went up from 30% to 35%.  The Congress was Republican.  Realize that today's approval numbers are around 10%.

President Clinton did go on to win re-election in 1996, with the help of Ross Perot, though he did not get a majority of the votes.  Furthermore, Clinton won by signaling his compliance with the Republican Congress's demands for fiscal limits -- in fact, in January of 1996, Clinton famously declared in his State of the Union message that "the era of big government is over."  He was met by thunderous applause and sustained interruption in a Republican chamber that viewed the moment as a political signal of defeat for Democrats.

Clinton's second term was occupied by other distracting matters we will not discuss here.  But his capitulation on "Hillary Care" combined with spending limits such as welfare reform ushered in one of the most fiscally productive eras in U.S. budget history.  The budget showdown and government shutdown were huge political factors leading to this change. 

The media tends to tell us that President Clinton accomplished budget and economic reform alone and credited this era as a supreme Democratic achievement.  This is laughable and contradicted by the double-chambered reality of Republicans controlling both the House and Senate during these periods of time.  In fact, it was Clinton's fiscally reckless drive in his first term that ushered in the first Republican sweep of the House, in decades, for 1994.

For those still skeptical that this latest shutdown is good for our country, keep in mind that President Obama's own budget processes have been dented by political obstructionism.  Federal spending has actually flattened and dropped since 2009, after having skyrocketed in years prior.  Spending is still far too high, but annual revenues to the government have increased by almost half a trillion dollars -- with our rather anemic economic growth.  If you look at federal spending charts now, you can see that the spending has hit some sort of invisible ceiling -- call it political obstructionism.  Events like the sequester have backed the federal budget process into a political corner that prevents spending from growing explosively.  The political process is working.

The root questions stirring the public today are not unlike those stirring publics all around the world.  From Australia to Egypt, people are rising up in resistance to a world mired in excessive governance and regulatory bondage.  A variety of recent elections in Germany, Canada, and Australia signal the change that American media want to deny.  Government as a source of meaning and control is being rejected.

Clinton advisors are amping up team Obama's confidence that stalemating the Republicans will serve Democrats well.  But all parties should observe that the media is becoming less monolithic every day, and the potential to control the narrative is more limited than it was even for Clinton.  So it may be time for pollsters to stop asking, "Whom do you blame for the government shutdown?" and start asking the better question: "Whom do you credit?"

Ben Voth is an associate professor of communication and director of debate and speech at Southern Methodist University.

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