Smashing mythologies: Clinton’s shutdown win and Mr. Smith’s speech

Most pundits are predicting disaster for the Republican Party if there’s a federal government shutdown, partly because President Bill Clinton is perceived as having stomped GOP House Speaker Newt Gingrich in the court of public opinion after the shutdowns of 1995 and 1996. This perception has hardened because Clinton easily won re-election in 1996, and winners of presidential elections are assumed to be brilliant political strategists.

TheGuardian.com’s Harry J. Enten argues otherwise, and his data help to explain why so many of today’s Republican congressmen seem unfazed by the prospect of a shutdown. Reviewing the polls, Enten writes:

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Clinton’s approval rating just after the shutdowns was, if anything, slightly lower than before it. In other words, he really didn't win much in terms of his standing. He didn’t gain ground in his approval rating, and didn't lose less than Congress.

Clinton’s major increase in presidential approval occurred in the months after the shutdown. Those ratings corresponded very well with a major increase, also, in congressional approval. That's not surprising, given that both approval ratings tend to move in unison with one another. Congressional and presidential approval in this case moved up—because the economy was improving.

As for Clinton’s 1996 win, Enten says it was “what you’d expect,” given the strength of the economy and absence of any “big event” that overrode the economy as the chief concern of voters. (I would also point out that Clinton’s 49 percent, against 41 percent for Bob Dole and 8 percent for Ross Perot, was nothing to brag about for an incumbent in an economic boom.) The Republicans, meanwhile lost only two House seats after picking up more than 50 in 1994, which wasn’t much of a repudiation of their brinksmanship politics.

Enten writes that “only 10% of Americans said the government shutdown was their greatest reservation about Republicans, following the 1996 vote, per a post-election poll.” I don’t voters are always reliable in explaining what motivates their behavior, so I wouldn’t put too much importance on one poll. Memories of the shutdowns may have faded by Election Day, but Clinton’s handling of the crises was of a piece with his “triangulation” strategy, which emphasized his centrism and fiscal responsibility. Passing welfare reform, balancing the budget, and declaring that “the era of big government is over” in a State of the Union speech all burnished Clinton’s credentials as a money manager, and they may have contributed to a retroactive perception that he was the more responsible actor during the shutdowns.

In other words, Clinton arguably “won” the shutdowns by escaping Gingrich’s attempts to portray the Democrats as congenital big spenders who forced the GOP to take a hard line. 

Obama may be in a more precarious position this year, since he’s defending the implementation of a new program (“Obamacare”) against congressional Republicans who are threatening to choke off funding for government operations (or, more drastically, default on the national debt). As indicated in Ezra Klein’s history of federal shutdowns since 1976, Clinton did agree to Republican demands for tighter budgets during his showdowns with Gingrich, so it’s not crazy for current GOP members to expect major concessions this time around even if they can’t “defund” Obamacare.

It’s also true that House Republicans are generally in safer seats than they were in 1996, not so much because of gerrymandering but because of their increased strength in rural and exurban areas (especially in the South). So, no, they probably aren’t trembling at the thought that they’ll be blamed for a shutdown.

Mr. Hysterical Goes to Washington

Responding to the filibuster-ish speech by Texas Sen. Ted Cruz this week, The American Prospect’s Tom Carson grumbles at the Hollywood hokum of Frank Capra’s 1939 film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, which romanticized the notion of refusing to yield the floor:

The movie is often hailed as a tribute to democracy, but it sure isn’t a tribute to democracy as a functioning or even valid process. As I’ve pointed out more than once in print, the hero isn’t elected, casts no votes, passes no legislation, and prevails via the most undemocratic of Senate tactics: a filibuster. Paine’s convenient crisis of conscience aside, Smith wins due to a successful appeal to public hysteria.

It’s true that filibusters, and Senate speeches in general, have almost no effect on the outcome of votes in that chamber, and Cruz was just playing for the cameras. But most voters will never be convinced that the “world’s greatest debating society” gets its business done away from C-SPAN cameras. If there’s a movie they equate with the Senate, it’s Twelve Angry Men, which is about the common experience of serving on a jury. Cruz was playing the lone holdout who eventually wins over all the other jurors through his tenacity and appeal to reason. No, legislative bodies don’t really work that way, but voters rarely punish anyone for acting as if they do.

Photo still from Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

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J Cosgrove
4 years ago
equate with the Senate, it’s Twelve Angry Men, which is about the common experience of serving on a jury
Smashing another mythology - By the way there is considerable opinion that the defendant was guilty in Twelve Angry Men. It is an example where rhetoric triumphed over reason. Especially when a physically appealing character is contrasted with a relatively physically unappealing character. Switch the two actors in Twelve Angry Men and people would have left the theater thinking how the murdered man's son got away with it. During graduate school we were shown Twelve Angry Men and Twelve O'Clock High as examples of interpersonal communication and influencing opinion. We were struck with the use of "Twelve" and wondered if they should also have shown, High Noon which is also an example of group behavior and the lack of persuasion but which doing the right thing became paramount. The question is who is Will Kane in this debate? Maybe that is a better metaphor than Mr. Smith. A lot of what Obama is getting away with during his presidency is because for many Obama is a very attractive person and represents an oppressed group of people. Put Richard Nixon in the exact same position and the president's approval ratings would be in the low teens. Maybe not that high.

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