Comparing the Shutdowns: 1995/2013

In 1995, the vast majority of our first-year students at Dickinson College were born. They arrived into a world where the gas was much cheaper, the employment was lower, and the government was shut down. Okay, maybe some things never change. While there have been shutdowns in both 1995 and 2013, the current instance is even more alarming than the former one.

For starters, the debate has an even higher stake now than it had in 1995. While the Democrats and Republicans debated on issues that mattered to them, none of the divisiveness was over landmark legislation passed by the Clinton administration. In today’s shutdown, there is a debate over a consequential piece of legislation (The Affordable Care Act) passed by the current president and the current generation of Democrats. On the Republican side, it also happens to be the consequential piece of legislation they have fought against for the last several years. Considering the importance of the piece of legislation being held hostage by Congress, there will be little incentive for either party to budge.

The current debate also has leaders that are much more partisan than in 1995. One does not need to look any further than the cast of characters involved in both debates. In 1995, the most important figures were President Clinton, who was a skilled negotiator; Newt Gingrich, who had some moderate Republicans to work with; Al Gore, who was so moderate that my parents were never able to tell the difference (in substance) between Gore and George W. Bush during the 2000 presidential debates; and Bob Dole, who had a reputation for being a moderate. Today’s figures in the debate include President Obama, who will not budge on his landmark piece of legislation (and understandably so); John Boehner, who has to deal with the Tea Party; Joe Biden, who will refuse to budge on his boss’s landmark piece of legislation; and Eric Cantor (among others), who has a reputation for unwillingness to negotiate. While there are still moderates on both sides, in the form of people like Senator Claire McCaskill, Democrat from Missouri, and Senator Susan Collins, Republican from Maine, these centrists have been pushed to the side in favor of loudmouth partisans.

To make matters worse, President Obama’s lack of popularity gives Republicans little motivation to work with the president. Obama has been stuck with a 45% approval rating (give or take a percentage point or two) for the last several months. This is as opposed to President Clinton, who entered the 1995 shutdown with an approval rating above 50%. Clinton’s strong support gave him leverage in negotiations, but Obama has no such room to work with. This means that the Republicans are likely less willing to compromise now than they would with a popular president.

Speaking of President Obama, he also does not have to worry about facing re-election. This is different from the political climate surrounding the shutdown under Clinton, because he still had to worry about reelection in November 1996. This means that Obama has very little political stake in this debate, other than possibly his legacy. But even with his legacy, he would probably look at his absolute worst if he chickens out of his own health care plan. In other words, there is no reason for the president to negotiate with Congress for anything less than the passing of his health care plan.

While there were shutdowns in both 1995 and 2013, the political and economic climates surrounding the two shutdowns are significantly different. If anything, the current state of things makes compromise much less likely now than it was in 1995.