Back to the Future? A Look At the 1995-96 Government Shutdowns

Back to the Future? A Look At the 1995-96 Government Shutdowns

Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time, but public attitudes toward the 1995 and 1996 government shutdowns went south quickly. And, the standing of Republicans in Congress dropped from a pretty good level to a much weaker point. It was a sobering lesson in the advantage of the bully pulpit of the presidency just a few months after Bill Clinton had to make the argument that he was still relevant.

(The government “shutdown” was only partial – furloughing non-essential government workers and suspending non-essential services from November 14-19, 1995, and then again from December 16, 1995 to January 6, 1996, for a total of 28 days).

The political outcome was much more fuzzy. By November of 1996, it was as though the shutdown had never happened. Bill Clinton was handily re-elected, building off a strengthening economy and the improvement in his approval rating that started after the shutdown ended. However, Republicans only lost eight House seats (and maintained control of the House) and picked up two Senate seats that year. It was not the election Armageddon that is remembered through the haze of the past 18 years.

Short-term, Clinton’s approval rating got stronger in November 1995, shooting up from the upper 40s prior to it to the low 50s during and after it. The second shutdown stretch was tougher on him – Clinton dropped from 51% approval in mid-December to 42% in early January. However, once the shutdown ended, he started his long steady climb to high approval ratings. Clinton was over 50% by late January, on his way up to 60% at Labor Day.

While Congress generally received solid ratings from early 1995 till early 2005, late 1995-96 were exceptions. Going into the shutdown, Congress had a 30% approval rating, and it dropped into the 22% range after the five days. It “recovered” quickly to 32% in early December, but dropped back to 26% after the second shutdown. Approval for Congress peaked at 40% in mid-September, and dropped to 34% right before the election.

A question facing Republicans in Congress about another shutdown is, given the much more negative perception of Congress these days, could the GOP count on short memories by voters? That will have to go down as a known unknown.

Clinton clearly won the showdown from the start. In mid-November, the day the shutdown started, nearly twice as many (49%) blamed GOP leaders over Clinton (26%) for the shutdown. Looking at the data over time, that spread was pretty consistent – 47-51% blamed Republicans in Congress, while 25-28% blamed Bill Clinton. By January, that number closed to 44% blaming the GOP/33% blaming Clinton.

In fact, in November, 48% approved of how Clinton was handling the budget negotiations, whereas just 32% approve of Bob Dole’s handling and 22% of Newt Gingrich’s work. (To avoid cluttering this post with survey sources, they are in a separate document that my Research Assistant, Kyle Clark, compiled. Click this link for the document: “government shutdown polls”).

The fight was not seen as a battle over principles, but as a political food fight. Only 37% saw it as “an important battle over principles and the future direction of government,” compared to the 52% who said it was “mostly an attempt by both sides to gain political advantage before the 1996 election.”

Oh, there certainly was data Republicans could point to in order to make ourselves feel better about the public opinion drubbing we were taking. Five days into the shutdown, only 11% said they had been personally affected by the cutback in government services or programs caused by the shutdown, while 88% were not affected.

(Note: while in terms of public opinion polls, 11% is not a lot, in terms of sheer numbers of people, just over one out of ten is a lot of people.)

In addition, 46% said that Republicans were really trying to find a solution to the budget standoff, while 46% said they weren’t really trying. However, Clinton had a 62%-32% advantage on the same measure.

By January, Clinton had a 50% approve/46% disapprove rating for his “handling (of) the dispute over the federal budget.” In contrast, however, only 22% approved and 74% disapproved of the way Republicans in Congress were handling the dispute. While it’s true the President usually has a built-in advantage on handling issues, that net 56 point differential was problematic.

The unhappiness with the process did not affect attitudes toward the preferred outcome; voters just did not believe a shutdown was the way to go about achieving the goal of balancing the budget. A majority, 52%, still believed it was more important to balance the federal budget, while 41% said it was more important to maintain the current level of services in domestic programs.

In addition, 50% agreed and 46% disagreed with the statement that “The federal government shutdown has shown that many of the services the federal government provides are not essential and should be eliminated.”

Underscoring the difference between the GOP goal (balancing the budget) and the process to get there (shutting down the government), only 23% said in January that the “partial shutdown of the federal government” was a good thing, while 75% said it was a bad thing.

(As an interesting historical sidebar, back in January of 1996, voters said that GOP leaders in Congress would deserve more credit for balancing the budget by a 47%-31% number over Bill Clinton, and yet Clinton’s historical reputation has been burnished by the GOP Congress’s fiscal discipline. If the 1994 GOP takeover of Congress had never happened, there is no chance Clinton and the Democrats would have balanced the budget. No wonder the Democrats insist on controlling the media.)

Approach and tone are important – Bob Dole was seen as helpful by 34% to reaching an agreement and seen as standing in the way by 31%, while Newt Gingrich was viewed as helpful by just 17% and as standing in the way by 54%.

While voters thought compromise was important, they overwhelmingly saw the fight as the two sides playing politics (76%) rather than important policy differences (17%). An important lesson, though, is that 59% said both Republicans and Clinton should compromise equally, while 21% said GOPers should compromise more and 17% believed Clinton should compromise more.

While today the nation’s attention is focused on Miley Cyrus, the NFL, and, oh yes, Syria, the looming fiscal fight is not far off on the horizon. A look back at the 1995 shutdown shows that while Bill Clinton got the better of it, the fight was not as one-sided as memory would imply. President Obama certainly has the advantage on this fight – he has a louder megaphone and a sycophantic media at his beck and call.

As we head toward the denouement of this policy fight, it is important that Republicans not paint themselves as intractable and unwilling to give up a little to get what is most important. Also, the GOP has to focus not on the process (shutting down the government), but the outcome (long-awaited fiscal discipline). Keep in mind, those are messages the media will seek to undermine – so this will not be easy.