What John Boehner learned from Republicans' missteps in 1995

Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio) is doing things differently this time.

As a member of the House Republican leadership team during the last government shutdown, Boehner talked tough with the Democratic White House, but lost the message war badly. Boehner was weakened, though not as badly as then-Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.). Both, however, were subsequently pushed out of leadership.

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There are many similarities between the budget stalemates of 1995-96 and 2011. Yet people who know Boehner well say the Ohio Republican has learned from prior missteps, adding that history will not repeat itself.

The stakes are incredibly high. The GOP’s standoff with the Obama administration and the Senate will go a long way in defining Boehner’s success, or failure, as House Speaker.

A source close to the Speaker said Boehner is more patient than he was 15 years ago and — unlike Gingrich — Boehner realizes that shutting down the government is not the endgame, it’s a means to an end.

“He’s not going to back down because a government shutdown is imminent. He’s not going to be forced into a bad deal, or sell out his principles or his members, because a government shutdown is the only other alternative. There’s a clearness of purpose now that there wasn’t in ’95 or ’96. I think that he’s smart enough to do it in a way that it will not be on the Republicans’ watch,” the source added.

Boehner didn’t mince his words in the showdown with President Clinton. In November of 1995, he said, “The White House has been in fantasy land for months and at some point they need to stop gazing into their crystal ball and look to the Capitol and get into reality.”

Former Rep. David Hobson (R-Ohio) said the GOP thought at the time it had the upper hand by forcing Clinton to veto the budget.

“Instead, [voters] were outraged at us,” he said. “That made John very leery of getting caught up in things, and he’s taken a very measured approach” this time around.

Asked to compare 1995 to this year, Boehner recently said, “Well, there’s some similarities to 1995 and there are a lot of things that are different. I think the biggest thing is that you’ve got a lot of different personalities confronting the current desire to cut spending and put America back on its road to fiscal health.

“And it’s going to be fascinating here over the next few weeks and months as we work our way through this. But these are going to be the most important two, three, four months that we’ve seen in this town in decades.”

John Feehery of Quinn Gillespie & Associates, who worked for then-Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Texas) during Clinton’s first term, said Boehner is “handling the situation deftly, he’s getting ahead of the story, he’s keeping the Democrats off their message and he’s leading.”

Feehery, a contributor to The Hill’s Pundits Blog, noted that in contrast to Gingrich, Boehner has been even-keeled.

“The big thing that sunk Newt was when he got emotional,” Feehery said, referencing when Gingrich publicly complained about having to ride in the back of Air Force One.

Boehner knew Gingrich’s whining played into the Democrats’ hands.

He advised the Georgia Republican to “lay low,” saying the airplane fiasco had created “an image problem,” according to a report in The Washington Post.

House Democrats picked up nine seats in 1996 and another five in 1998. Gingrich resigned and then-Rep. J.C. Watts (R-Okla.) successfully challenged Boehner for his leadership post.

Grover Norquist, head of Americans for Tax Reform, stressed the differences between the two standoffs, noting that now there is the existence of the Internet as well as Fox News Channel, a favorite among conservatives.

He also said Boehner is not an easy target for liberals like Gingrich was.

“Newt became a target because of his personality,” Norquist said. “Boehner’s name ID is not high and he has much firmer control of the House.”

Democrats scoff at that claim, asserting the GOP freshman class is leading Boehner, not the other way around.

Republicans did win round one of the budget battle with Democrats, getting the Senate to pass the House’s short-term funding bill that cut $4 billion in spending. That came after Boehner made it clear that he would not back any stopgap bill that flat-lined government spending, which had become Congress’s default move amid partisan budget wrangling.

Rep. Charlie Bass (R-N.H.), who was first elected in 1994, said the House GOP has simply learned how to govern: “The Republicans didn’t know how to be a majority in 1995 … now the Republicans know how to lead.”