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Former Clinton Aides Discuss Implications of Shutdown

A pair of former staffers to President Bill Clinton said on Wednesday that a government shutdown in 1995 helped the Democrat win re-election in 1996, something that could be a foreshadowing for President Barack Obama (D) and a potential government shutdown this spring.

“I think it won him the ’96 election,” said Elaine Kamarck, who now teaches public policy at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. “I think the political impact was enormous. I think after the shutdown he was ahead of [Bob] Dole and frankly never fell behind him. You know, I think politically it really did work to Clinton’s advantage. [then-Speaker Newt] Gingrich didn’t play it very well. I assume Gingrich could have played it better.”

Speaking to reporters at a breakfast meeting at Third Way, Bill Galston, now at the Brookings Institution, agreed that the shutdown helped Clinton politically but added that it also helped bring both sides together on policy.

“I do think that it had the interesting effect of bringing Republicans to the table, and there were agreements in both ’96 and ’97 that were not trivial,” Galston said. “So you could argue that after the new Republican majority hit a wall, which their leadership had steered them into in December ’95 and January ’96, they were to some extent sobered up and more willing to do business than before they hit the wall.”

The meeting was a chance for the two staffers-turned-scholars to discuss their new report on the effect of moderates and independents on elections and to talk about structural changes — including in the redistricting process, in low-turnout primary elections and in choosing Congressional leadership — that would encourage their participation.

Former Rep. Dan Maffei (D-N.Y.), who became a distinguished senior fellow at Third Way after he lost in November, said the way Congressional leadership is set up, new Members don’t get much choice in who will lead them, mostly approving the leaders already in place. And moderates who have to work hard to defend their seats are somewhat marginalized in leadership, he added.

“The moderates, because we’re from tight districts, we’re all so busy,” he said. “There are very few moderates that could be in leadership even if they wanted to. We just spend so much time going back and forth to our districts and so much time raising money.”

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