There's been lots of talk about "shutting down the government" if the Republicans don't get their way on Obamacare. Some say that the last government shutdown was good for Republicans, politically, and that they would be wise to do it again. That's not the way I remember it.
President Clinton's first two years in office were pretty much a disaster. We saw blunder after blunder, scandal after scandal, and a very large number of people, including me, said he had been damaged so badly that he was in danger of becoming irrelevant. After the Republican sweep in 1994, some of my Democratic colleagues announced their retirements, sure that Clinton was going to lose so big in 1996 that sharing the ticket with him would end their careers anyway.
Newt Gingrich, on the other hand, was flying high. Credited with having masterminded the Republican victory, he was pushing bill after bill through the House, doing as he promised in his "Contract with America." There was much talk of his running for President. When he went to New Hampshire "to look at a moose," Clinton felt compelled to show up as well. Gingrich was seen as his equal.
At the height of all this, Gingrich decided to complete the job of marginalizing the president. He crafted a budget proposal that would have the effect of shifting much power away from the president, over to the Congress. He got the House to pass it and then came over to the Senate to explain to all of us how devastating it would be for Clinton. It would not be vetoed, he said, because that would trigger a government shutdown. After Clinton caved in and signed it, Republicans would be fully in charge.
I asked him, "What if the president doesn't cave?"
"This president not cave? Look at this and this and this," he said, ticking off examples where the president had allowed himself to be rolled over by the Congress. "Of course he will cave."
"Yes, but, again, what if he doesn't?"
I got more reassurances that of course he would. It was clear that there was no Plan B.
So the confrontation came. Clinton did not cave. The government (or, more accurately, roughly a third of it, since the larger appropriations bills had already been passed) shut down.
As things dragged on, the public became disgusted with the entire spectacle. Gingrich argued loud and long, but Clinton still stood firm, which made Gingrich look more and more desperate while Clinton looked more and more statesman-like, a quality that had previously eluded him. Finally, Bob Dole, recognizing how foolish all this was for the country, not to mention the damage it was doing to Republicans, forced a deal that ended it. There was no more talk of Gingrich for president; Dole became the Republican nominee.
The episode transformed President Clinton's image. The amateur of the first two years morphed into the "stand-up guy" who faced down the fractious Republicans during his second two. His fellow Democrats began to believe in him again, rallied around him and helped him win re-election handily.
There's a lesson here for those who think that shutting down the government will force President Obama's hand on Obamacare. He, too, is currently being derided as an amateur, reeling as a result of criticism about his dithering over Syria. The best way to help him put that aside and regain his stature as a leader would be to give him an opportunity similar to the one Gingrich gave Clinton.
I've seen this movie before, and I know how it comes out.
Robert Bennett, former U.S. senator from Utah, is a part-time teacher, researcher and lecturer at the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics.
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