Media outlets compared Iraq funding battle with 1995-96 shutdown without noting crucial differences

››› ››› BRIAN LEVY

In reporting on the Senate passing an emergency funding bill that sets a date for U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq to begin, with the goal of having most troops out by March 31, 2008 -- a bill that will likely be vetoed -- various media outlets have cited the budget standoff that led to the government shutdowns of 1995-96 as a warning to congressional Democrats. But in suggesting that the 1995 shutdown shows that Congress stands to lose over such a standoff, the media ignore key differences in the two situations, including, that former President Bill Clinton was a far more popular president at the time of the standoff than current polling indicates President Bush is.

Just prior to the first government shutdown, which began on November 14, 1995, Clinton's job approval ratings were significantly higher than Bush's are now. The Roper Center for Public Opinion Research noted that Clinton had a 54 percent job performance rating in a November 10-13, 1995, ABC/Washington Post poll and a 52 percent job performance rating in a November 6-8, 1995, USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll. By contrast, in a March 23-25, 2007, USA Today/Gallup poll, only 34 percent of respondents said they "approve of the way George W. Bush is handling his job as president." Similarly, a March 21-25 poll by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that Bush had a 33 percent job performance rating.

At the time, polls also showed stronger support for Clinton's position on the budget problem that led to the shutdown than for the position held by the then-Republican-led Congress. By comparison, a majority of the public now supports a timeline for U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, which Bush has said, if present in the bill Congress sends him, will lead to a veto. Regarding the budget issue, The New York Times noted in a November 11, 1995, article:

The most recent NBC News-Wall Street Journal Poll shows a continuing erosion of public support for their [the Republicans' budget] program. ... [I]n October, only 35 percent were supporters and 45 percent were opposed.

Similarly, Newsday noted on November 11, 1995, that a "USA Today/CNN poll released yesterday suggested Americans by wide margins have soured on the Republican agenda, with 60 percent saying he [Clinton] should veto the budget bill and 33 percent saying he should sign it." According to a later CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll, conducted on November 14, 1995, the first day of the shutdown, 36 percent of respondents favored the Republican position on the budget and 49 percent favored the Democratic position.

On March 23, Bush vowed to veto the House version of the Iraq war supplemental, which includes a date by which redeployment must begin and must be completed. Recent polls show that a majority of Americans support setting a timetable for the withdrawal of troops. In the March 23-25 USA Today/Gallup poll, 60 percent of respondents said they "favor" "[s]etting a time-table for withdrawing all U.S. troops from Iraq no later than the fall of 2008." And, in the March 21-25 Pew poll, 55 percent of respondents said the "U.S. should ... set a timetable for when troops will be withdrawn from Iraq." Furthermore, 40 percent of respondents said the "Democratic leaders in Congress are ... not [going] far enough in challenging George W. Bush's policies in Iraq," 30 percent said they were "handling this about right," and 23 percent said they were "going too far."

In citing the 1995 shutdown as a caveat for Congress today, however, recent news reports have largely left out these differences. For example:

  • The Associated Press reported in a March 29 article by Anne Flaherty: "The looming showdown was reminiscent of the GOP-led fight with President Clinton over the 1996 budget. ... Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., the House speaker at the time, eventually relented but claimed victory."
  • In a March 29 Washington Post article, unnamed "Bush strategists" compared the 1995 shutdown with the possible Iraq standoff, "hop[ing] that the Democrats will overplay their hand, as the Republicans themselves did a decade ago."
  • On March 29, The New York Times cited "[s]ome" Democrats who "recalled President Clinton's success in putting the blame on Republicans for a 1995 government shutdown."
  • In a March 29 article about an Iraq "showdown," the Los Angeles Times reported that "[t]he last such head-on collision between the branches of government was in 1994, when a newly elected Republican Congress took aim at a Democratic president and eventually forced the shutdown of the federal government." While the article noted that the Iraq war is "increasingly unpopular," it did not mention that the Republican position on the budget in 1995 had less public support than Clinton's position.
  • In another March 29 AP article, this time by special correspondent David Espo, the AP reported that the current "confrontation" had "similarities" to the 1995 budget battle, which Espo described as between "a new, Republican-controlled Congress" and "a politically weakened president of the other party." Espo concluded: "In the end, the new GOP majority surrendered, and Bill Clinton exploited the episode to help rehabilitate his standing with the voters. "
  • On the March 28 edition of MSNBC's Tucker, host Tucker Carlson asserted: "Don't you think the party that is seen as grinding the government to a halt loses? The Republicans lost the government shutdown standoff."
  • In a March 22 Post analysis, staff writer Michael Abramowitz wrote that "the coming struggle over war spending recalls the budget battles" in which "House Republicans led by Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) badly overplayed their hand and were blamed politically for a government shutdown." Abramowitz wrote that anonymous "White House officials" "suggest this lesson is not far from their thinking."

Weekly Standard executive editor Fred Barnes went still further in a March 5 column reprinted on CBSNews.com, asserting that the government shutdown was evidence of broader congressional weakness. Barnes wrote that it's "impossible" and that "[i]t never works" to "govern Washington from Capitol Hill," citing the "climactic clash in 1995," in which congressional Republicans were "thwarted by President Clinton."

From Flaherty's March 29 AP article:

Democrats acknowledge they do not have enough support in Congress to override Bush's veto, but say they will continue to ratchet up the pressure until he changes course.

The looming showdown was reminiscent of the GOP-led fight with President Clinton over the 1996 budget, which caused a partial government shutdown that lasted 27 days. Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., the House speaker at the time, eventually relented but claimed victory because the bill represented a substantial savings over the previous year's spending.

From the March 29 Washington Post article:

Inside the White House, Bush strategists hope that the Democrats will overplay their hand, as the Republicans themselves did a decade ago. "This is in some ways a replay of the government shutdown," agreed one White House official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss strategy. "The Republicans overreached at that point. I think that the Democrats will overreach [now]. We'll see."

Bush criticized yesterday the $20 billion in domestic spending that was added to the Senate bill. The nonmilitary spending includes $1.6 billion for flood and storm damage relief along the Gulf Coast, $2 billion to cover crop losses, $25 million for drought assistance, $820 million for low-income heating subsidies, and $75 million to repair the failing computer system at the Farm Service Agency.

From the March 29 New York Times article:

While they are hoping to capitalize on Mr. Bush's unpopularity, Democrats acknowledged privately that they were uncertain how the finger-pointing would play out. Some recalled President Clinton's success in putting the blame on Republicans for a 1995 government shutdown.

Republicans say Mr. Bush may be unpopular, but his policy of sending additional troops to Iraq may have more support than he does. Despite a recent nationwide telephone poll by the Pew Research Center for People and the Press in which 59 percent of those who responded said they wanted their lawmakers to vote in favor of a timetable for withdrawal, aides to Mr. Bush say the public is beginning to see improvements on the ground in Iraq and is willing to give Mr. Bush's troop buildup a chance.

From the March 29 Los Angeles Times article:

With the Senate poised today to vote to restrict President Bush's ability to conduct the war in Iraq, the White House and Congress are careening toward their biggest policy confrontation in more than a decade.

The last such head-on collision between the branches of government was in 1994, when a newly elected Republican Congress took aim at a Democratic president and eventually forced the shutdown of the federal government.

This time, a newly elected Democratic Congress is taking on a Republican president in an effort to force a drawdown in an increasingly unpopular war.

From Espo's March 29 AP article:

Whatever the outcome, the confrontation bore similarities to a veto fight of a dozen years ago. At the time, a new, Republican-controlled Congress promised steep spending cutbacks to balance the budget, and a politically weakened president of the other party refused to go along.

A pair of government shutdowns ensued including one that lasted 21 days and Republicans bore the brunt of the public's unhappiness. In the end, the new GOP majority surrendered, and Bill Clinton exploited the episode to help rehabilitate his standing with the voters.

Apart from the Iraq provisions, the Senate legislation includes about $20 billion in domestic spending that Bush did not ask for. Republicans readied an attempt to strip out much of it, and Bush listed it as among the bill's objectionable features.

From the March 28 edition of MSNBC's Tucker, which also featured MSNBC political analyst Pat Buchanan:

PRESS: I disagree with Pat's analysis to this extent. I mean, certainly, the president's going to veto this bill. That's correct. We know that. But I think, every time this bill comes up, or a similar bill like that, there are more and more Republicans who will be compelled to vote for it, because their political survival is at stake in 2008.

And the closer we get to either the presidential primary or any of these guys running for re-election in the Senate, Tucker, he vetoes that bill, that means it comes back, and they've got to vote on it again, which means Republicans have to stand up again and say, "We support George Bush. We support this war." That is suicide for them.

CARLSON: No, they don't, necessarily, because, of course, they lost this last vote. In fact, they can just let it keep going. The vote could stay at the -- along the same lines it was. And, in the end, don't you think the party that is seen as grinding the government to a halt loses? The Republicans lost the government shutdown standoff.

PRESS: Wait a minute, who's grinding the government to a halt? This is government working the way it's supposed to do. The president has put his policy out. Congress, reflecting the will -- clearly, the will of the American people -- has put its policy out there.

BUCHANAN: Let me tell you --

PRESS: And, so, you've got a clash between the two. That's the way government's supposed to work.

From the Post's March 22 analysis:

In some respects, the coming struggle over war spending recalls the budget battles between the GOP-led Congress and the Clinton White House during the mid-1990s. In that case, House Republicans led by Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) badly overplayed their hand and were blamed politically for a government shutdown they thought would force President Bill Clinton to make the budget cuts he opposed.

Private conversations with White House officials suggest this lesson is not far from their thinking. Officials appear convinced that Democrats would not dare risk being blamed for not "supporting the troops" by refusing to send Bush a bill without restrictions on how troops are to be deployed. Moderate Democrats, already skittish about the party leadership's plan, "would go nuts," one White House official predicted.

From Barnes' March 5 column:

As a result the outlook for Republicans and conservatives isn't as bleak as it seemed right after last November's midterm election -- and Democrats and liberals have found that enacting their agenda is far more complicated than they imagined when they captured Congress.

Democrats have themselves to blame, at least in part. They've tried to do the impossible: govern Washington from Capitol Hill. It never works. Republicans tried it after they won Congress in 1994, only to be thwarted by President Clinton in the climactic clash in 1995 over a government shutdown. They lost because they misread their mandate and overreached. Now Democrats are doing the same, particularly in their attempts to obstruct President Bush's counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq.

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