Newt Gingrich’s Shutdown Journey, From “Clearly Wrong” to “Historic Success”

April 1, 2011 9:47 a.m.

Newt Gingrich turned a few heads in February when he penned an op-ed pointing to the 1995-1996 government shutdown he presided over as Speaker as an instructive success for the current Congress. Gingrich’s pro-shutdown view colored his remarks to freshmen House Republican Thursday at the Capitol, where he warned them not to be intimidated by the prospect of a similar scenario in facing off with Obama.

Gingrich’s rah-rah appraisal of the 1995 shutdown is a recent development, however, completing a gradual journey from embracing the conventional view of the event as a disaster for Republicans to unabashedly defending it as a triumph today.

“In retrospect, if I were doing it all over again, we would consciously avoid the government shutdown,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 1996. “It was clearly wrong.” He added that “One of the lessons I’ve learned in the last two years is you go slower, you prepare the ground, you make sure people understand.”Pushing back against conventional wisdom — including his own, apparently — that the budget fight was one of the party’s lowest moments and a reinvigorating tonic for President Clinton en route to a re-election romp, Gingrich wrote in the Washington Post in February that the shutdown ushered in “historic success” for the GOP, forcing a balanced budget and preserving the Republican majority in Congress into the next decade.

“The Washington establishment believes that the government shutdown of 1995 was a disastrous mistake that accomplished little and cost House Republicans politically,” he wrote. “The facts are exactly the opposite.”

He offered a similar take to the American Spectator months earlier, suggesting Republicans shut down the government rather than fund health care reform while also claiming the 1995 shutdown as a resounding success.

Setting aide the merit of his claims, Newt’s words were a clear departure from his previous evaluations of the shutdown. As Speaker, Gingrich wholeheartedly endorsed the notion that he had screwed up in going to war with Clinton and personally pledged to change his ways in the wake of the standoff.

In his 1998 memoirs, Lessons Learned the Hard Way, Newt wrote that he wished he had followed Ronald Reagan’s lead in ignoring calls within his party for a shutdown, as Political Wire recalled this week,

“Reagan rejected this idea with a comment I wish I had understood better at the time,” he wrote. “The conservative activist who told me that story was convinced that Reagan would have won such a showdown. For fifteen years I agreed with him, but I was to learn something about the American people that too many conservatives don’t appreciate.

They want their leaders to have principled disagreements but they want these disagreements to be settled in constructive ways. That is not, of course, what our own activists were telling us. They were all gung ho for a brutal fight over spending and taxes. We mistook their enthusiasm for the views of the American public.”

Out of office, however, Gingrich began to shift his rhetoric, conceding in interviews and speeches that while the shutdown it was a mistake, it was both unavoidable and not a total loss.

In a talk with students at the Hoover Institute in January 2000, the Stanford Daily reported that Gingrich acknowledged the shutdown as one of his failures, but touted its benefits as well.

“It hurt us,” he said. “On the other hand, it cut $3 billion out of federal spending.”

Later that year, he told the New York Times‘ magazine’s James Traub that he still agonized over whether he made the right decision.

“I run this game film in my own head constantly,” Gingrich said. “If we had come in more reasonable, we would have been sucked into the city, we would have been negotiated into normalcy, like George Bush in 1990. You could see them gradually being absorbed into the Democrats, into ‘This is reality; how can you fight reality?'”

In his retelling of their conversation, Traub wrote in the Times that “Gingrich conceded that it was a disastrous miscalculation; but it was a halfhearted concession.”

By 2004, the Atlanta Journal Constitution characterized Newt as acknowledging mistakes in the standoff while hedging that his mission may have been politically unwinnable from the start.

“I don’t think we realized how big of a job it was to go from 40 years in the minority to going head-to-head with the president,” Gingrich said. “We were just trying to do things beyond our capacity.”

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