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Caveat lector

26 August 1998

Our current howler: Dean flunks history.

Synopsis: David Broder’s been changing recent history around in the effort to dump on Bill Clinton.

Autumn Showdown David Broder, The Washington Post, 8/26/98

We mentioned last week how much fun pundits have, lying about Clinton to prove he’sa liar. (See THE DAILY HOWLER, 8/19/98.) And, though we’d never use naughty words to discuss David Broder, even the dean of the Washington pundits has now decided to get in on the fun!

At issue: Broder’s column today in the Washington Post, in which he suggests that Clinton may force a government shutdown this fall in order to regain the political upper hand. To be honest, it’s hard to imagine how the scenario painted could ever occur in the current climate. But we were especially struck by the remarkable way Broder described the 1995 government shutdown.

Broder quotes Rep. Jerry Weller (R-IL) as Weller muses on the possibility that Big Bill Will Force A Shutdown (see our postscript below). Broder’s imagination takes over from there:

BRODER: The scenario on which Weller speculated is hardly a new one. In the winter of 1995-96, when his job rating was much lower than it is now, Clinton forced exactly that kind of government crisis. He convinced the public he was fighting to save Medicare from the new GOP majority on Capitol Hill, and saddled the Republicans with blame for the shutdown. It was a key step in his rehabilitation and eventual re-election.
According to Broder, it was Clinton who “forced” the 1995 shutdowns, and Broder’s statement that Republicans were “saddled with blame” implies that the blame was really Clinton’s, or Clinton’s to share. The interpretation is one the GOP has been pushing ever since the time of those disastrous shutdowns; but it is impossible to square with the actual events that occurred back in 1995.

As Broder knows--his column makes it clear--government shutdowns are notcaused by a failure to agree on a budget. When Congress and the White House can’t agree on a budget, there is a standard procedure, called a “continuing resolution,” that is used to keep the government running. In this procedure, the Congress passes a short-term spending measure, in which current funding levels continue on for a time. This keeps the government financed and running until a final budget agreement is achieved.

In 1995, then, the government shutdown was plainly not caused when the president and the Congress couldn’t agree on a budget. The shutdown was caused when the president and Congress failed to agree on a continuing resolution (CR). And as is absolutely clear from all the history, it was the Republican Congress--not the president--who refused to agree to a “clean” CR. The shutdown resulted from the GOP’s refusal to prepare a CR, not from any action by President Clinton.

As Broder no doubt would be able to recall if he were not so busy jumping on distracting, loud bandwagons, the Republican Congress prepared CRs in 1995 to which they attached the entire text of their proposed new budget! That is to say, if President Clinton had signed their proffered CRs, he would have been signing the very budget he was negotiating to change! Let’s face it--even a guy who was suddenly taking up with the help wasn’t going to fall for a dumb trick like that. But, there was never a time when President Clinton himself was unwilling to sign a “clean” CR--an unencumbered CR that would have kept the government running until a final budget deal was achieved.

Well, guess what? The public hated the government shutdown, and the public in general understood the plain fact that it was the GOP’s silly tactics that produced the disruption. The Republican Congress was “saddled with blame” because it was their tactics that had led to the shutdown! From that day to this, Republican propagandists have been laboring hard to rewrite the history of this silly affair. And today, as a willing David Broder signs on to their project, the moral to the story is all too clear. At times like this, it’s perfectly OK to rewrite recent history, as long as it’s that ol’ debbil Bill Clinton who gets hammered!

No, children, whatever one may think of President Clinton’s recent exploits, he didn’t “force” the shutdowns in 1995. He didn’t “saddle” Republicans with blame for the shutdowns; they were blamed for the obvious reasons. But, once again: isn’t it amazing to see the things that get said to “prove” that Ol’ Debbil Bill Clinton Lacks Character? The hounds are baying, the rope’s in hand, and it looks like the quarry’s begun breathin’ heavy. At times like this, without any question, a few major errors are going to occur. But shouldn’t a guy who we all call the dean be a little stronger when he limns recent history?

Postscript on that Weller feller: Broder’s column starts with Rep. Weller musing on Big Bill’s Next Exploit:

BRODER: Musing on the fallout from the Lewinsky scandal, Weller said, “I wonder if this will cause the president to take greater risks, to challenge Congress, to use his veto power to force a shutdown of government and divert the voters from his own problems. He might pick a couple popular issues and try to rally support for himself.”
It’s great to see Weller thinking so hard, but his scenario is impossible to imagine. There can be no government shutdown unless the president or the Congress refuses to produce a continuing resolution; and, in the present climate, the notion that Clinton could get away with refusing to sign a reasonable CR is too silly even to contemplate. What doesn’t seem to have occurred to David Broder is the possibility that someone else besides ol’ debbil Bill is capable of engaging in spin and deceit. Is Weller just setting the stage for the fall budget battles--trying to create a political climate in which it will be harder for Clinton to veto GOP bills he doesn’t like? We don’t know, but the thought has at least crossed our minds. Not so with the credulous Broder.