Somewhere in the dark recesses of my closet hides a threadbare memento of one of the most harrowing experiences of my Washington years, second only to Sept. 11, 2001. It's a tee shirt bearing the boast, "I Survived the Government Shutdown of 1995."
It's true. I was there. And I lived to tell the tale.
As the nation stands once again on the brink, facing the first government shutdown since then, I feel I must speak out about the horrors I experienced first-hand there at ground zero. Those who survived have an obligation to share our stories, so that it never, ever, happens again.
I remember it as if it were yesterday, driving to work one bright winter morning, past a glitzy Northern Virginia megamall, wondering why the hell the parking lot was spilling over on a day when most of the city was normally at the office, shuffling papers and looking busy. Then it hit me. It must be that government shutdown thing I'd been reading about. Our worst fears have finally been realized. It was actually unfolding, right before my eyes.
The malls were jammed with federal workers, out doing some early holiday shopping and enjoying the day off. So overflowing were the parking lots that day -- this is true – that some had to go to another shopping mall five miles away. Other than that, all seemed eerily normal as I went about my routine that day.
Traffic signals worked. Jets flew in and out of Reagan International. Gas stations were open. I caught glimpses of the subway -- it appeared to be running. State troopers were in their usual frenzy, ticketing High Occupancy Lane violators along the beltway. Buses swooshed past. Buildings were brightly lit and appeared to be heated. No panic was evident. It was absolutely creepy.
And this went on not just for a day or two, but maybe three. Each day the malls were buzzing like hives, as off-work federal employees stripped the shopping racks bare, before the rest of us, who weren’t getting any days off, even had a chance to get our shopping done! The federal workers were enjoying an extended holiday, while the rest of us wage slaves were still schlepping away, working for The Man. It was horrible. It was unnerving. It was an experience that scarred me.
But we in Washington didn’t see the worst of it. According to media reports, passport offices were closed, which really screwed-up a few vacations, and some national park visitors were turned away at the gates. They too can testify, first-hand, to the shock, the madness, the momentary inconveniences of the great government shutdown of 1995.
This is all tongue-in-cheek, of course, because there was no real government shutdown of 1995, as far as I recall, as someone who was living in the belly of the beast at the time. So there is no commemorative tee-shirt in my closet. There are no post traumatic stress symptoms. Most of my memories of the “shutdown,” in fact, are happy ones. Having thousands of idled federal bureaucrats out shopping, or at home, rather than doing whatever they do, meant less congestion on my daily commute. There were fewer cars clogging the roadways; fewer frowning faces on mass transit. That fewer bureaucrats were manning their posts was actually a comfort.
I venture to guess the experience was the same for all but a tiny number of Americans, who either had delays in getting their passports or were turned away at park gates. The vast majority of us didn’t notice, weren’t even slightly impacted, and so probably have no real recollection of that completely unforgettable alleged crisis. It wasn’t a shutdown, or even a brownout. And life went on uneventfully. It was the greatest non-event since Geraldo Rivera opened Al Capone’s vaults.
What really happened was this. The Clinton White House ordered some selective closures, and pushed on a few pressure points, in order to maximize the public outcry and make Newt Gingrich and his Republican revolutionaries flinch first. The media blew minor inconveniences into major disruptions, manufacturing a sense of hardship and crisis. This tactic even became known as "the Washington Monument strategy," because this iconic mall attraction was one of the few federal facilities actually padlocked.
And this all worked beautifully. Gingrich backed down and the Republican revolution of 1994 at that point died, by my calculation, based on the view from front row seats. When people ask me when I think the Republican Party went astray, and lost its soul, or when Republicans in Congress began taking on the worst attributes of the Democrats they ousted in the 1994 coup, I point to this as a turning point. Whether history will repeat itself depends on the next few moves in the game of budget chicken unfolding now.
That’s more than you can put on tee-shirt. But it’s all that really happened. If another impasse comes, President Obama will take a chapter from the Bill Clinton Handbook and do some selective shutdowns, designed to maximize screaming and garner media attention, while most of the rest of the government, and life in America, plods on as normal. He’ll bet that Republicans will retreat when enraged passport recipients or locked-out park visitors tell their sob stories to the media, and the media uses those stories to generate a sense of crisis. It’s all the fault of Republicans and the Tea Party: that will be the line from the White House, congressional Democrats and most in the media. Republicans will have to do some ferocious counter-spinning to win the blame game.
Will Republicans again blink first? Only time will tell. It depends on whether, and what, if anything, they learned from the last so-called shutdown. The stakes may be high for political parties, but the American people have little to fear from this piece of political gamesmanship and theater, since neither party has the nerve to truly shut down the federal government, or even shrink it significantly, as recent history shows. The fear of potential disruptions, not disruptions in fact, is what the White House will count on to carry the day.
But there’s another reason why no real shutdown of the government will happen. What Washingtonians of both parties fear most of all about a real shutdown is that the rest of America won’t care, or notice, and that we might even cheer – that we might just shrug it off, adapt, and find that we can get along perfectly well (and maybe even better) without omnipresent Washington.
Just imagine if that happened. The game would be up for both parties.