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Newt Gingrich: Lessons Learned From Past Government Shutdowns


Our next guest knows a thing or two about government shutdowns. It is Newt Gingrich. He was House speaker in 1995. He and then-President Bill Clinton reached an impasse over the budget, and parts of the government shut down twice, actually. The first '95 shutdown was in November and lasted five days. The second was about a month later. It lasted 21 days, and that was the record until this current shutdown, which hit 21 days on Friday. And that is when we called Newt Gingrich.

NEWT GINGRICH: Today they're tying my record, and tomorrow they'll break it. So I have a deep personal interest in this.

GREENE: Are you proud of that record?

GINGRICH: Yes. It led to an agreement with Clinton that led to welfare reform, the largest capital gains tax cut in history and four straight balanced budgets for the only time in your lifetime. And we wouldn't have gotten to them without the level of intensity. I mean, I think that we couldn't have moved the system that far without having raised the heat.

GREENE: Level of intensity and raising the heat. Like, why is that productive, and why is a shutdown the only way to do that?

GINGRICH: Look. Let's assume you have a system where there are large blocs of power that don't particularly want to change, and they don't particularly want to move. And so if they can, they're going to resist whatever you're doing. And the two ways, historically, were - well, there are three ways of really changing. One is somebody runs a campaign in which they win such a clear public will that the Congress and the president get something done. Reagan, in his first two years, for example. The second way things change is you have a genuine crisis - 9/11. The world was different by the evening of 9/11, and people responded for about a year. I mean, there was a real bipartisan effort, a real wake-up call.

The third way you do it is, is you have a huge coalition, that they are engaged in a political dance. And the reason you have to raise the heat is - Reagan used to say that his job was to turn up the light for the American people so they would turn up the heat on Congress. That really was how he governed.

GREENE: But what do you tell federal workers who are out of work right now going without pay if they feel like they're being held hostage for a political dance?

GINGRICH: Well, what I'd tell them is that, unfortunately, it is part of the American system. Now, look. I would love to have the federal employee unions, who are overwhelmingly Democratic, who are upset, would call Schumer and Pelosi and say, why is this such a big deal to you?

GREENE: Well, I have to say - I mean, with respect, Mr. Speaker - I mean, we've talked to federal workers who have never brought up politics at all - not talking about whether they're Democrats or Republicans - that have just been saying they don't have enough money to, you know, to pay the bills and they're thinking about, you know, going into the savings - college savings for their kids.

GINGRICH: Right. And the Senate passed the right bill which will guarantee them that they get paid when this is over, period. So they will all get compensated. Whether they go to work or not, whether they're laid off or not, everybody will get paid. So nobody, on an annual basis, nobody will lose money.

GREENE: You once suggested to a group of reporters that you in part provoked the initial shorter shutdown in 1995 'cause you felt snubbed by Bill Clinton for not talking to you on Air Force One...

GINGRICH: Yeah. That's just baloney.

GREENE: ...On flights to and from Israel, and he made you deplane from the back of the plane. It's...

GINGRICH: That is baloney. That's not what I said. This is one of those examples where you end up with an urban legend because one particular liberal reporter totally distorted what I said, and I then got to be a really clever cover of, I think it was Newsday.

GREENE: With you as the crybaby?

GINGRICH: Yeah. But what I said to them was, that in agreeing - we all agreed to go to Israel for the prime minister, for his funeral because he'd been assassinated.

GREENE: Yitzhak Rabin, we're talking about.

GINGRICH: Right. And so Dole and I are on the plane. We're going to fly all the way to Israel. We're going to fly all the way back. And in that time period, at some point, we could have had an hour or two to try to make some progress on negotiating. And later on, one of the people who was on the plane wrote a column and said the truth is that Bill Clinton was playing Hearts - that this whole notion that he was too exhausted is baloney, that he was sitting up front playing Hearts.

GREENE: Card game.

GINGRICH: Yeah. A card game.

GREENE: You described that to reporters, and you said that, you know, he made you get off in the back of the plane and so forth. And whatever you meant to be talking about, you know, you were seen as petty, a crybaby. You know, starting a shutdown over a snub. And you did say allowing that narrative to take hold was the single most avoidable mistake you made as speaker, right?

GINGRICH: Right. And at two levels. One is, I should have gone to the floor the next day and corrected it. And the other is, it's a good reminder to politicians not to go and talk to reporters.

GREENE: (Laughter). Well, I hope you don't follow that guideline.

GINGRICH: Well, no. I obviously don't. But I'll you flatly, I felt like I had been ambushed and that I'd been lied about.

GREENE: But doesn't that speak to the political risk, if you're dealing with a shutdown? I mean that in this political dance, if you're dealing with lives and federal workers...

GINGRICH: No. It shows you the political risk of dealing with the American news media. There's a reason that various media analysts say Trump gets, like, 92 percent negative coverage. He knows whatever he does, three weeks later, virtually every major media outlet in the country will be against it.

GREENE: But, like, he used the word proud, at one point, saying he would be proud to shut down the government over his fight for a border wall. Was that a smart word to use?

GINGRICH: No. Look. I don't think it's ever smart to be happy, or proud, to use that word, about causing pain to people. But I think what he was trying to say was that if the cost of getting to control of the Southern border is a head-on collision, that he is willing to have that head-on collision.

GREENE: How long is this shutdown going to go on, do you think?

GINGRICH: Mid to late-February.

GREENE: Why do you predict that?

GINGRICH: Well, because nobody's tired enough. I mean, you know, Pelosi's feeling her oats. She's a brand-new, first re-elected speaker since Sam Rayburn in 1954. So she has no reason right now to be reasonable. Schumer, basically, is tied to her. He is the tail on the kite, and she's the kite. And Trump is genuinely determined to protect the southern border.

GREENE: Could this backfire for both sides?

GINGRICH: Well, the country will be increasingly angry at everybody.

GREENE: Is that a good thing for either side?

GINGRICH: Well, it probably creates a space for somebody like Beto O'Rourke to show up as a totally unknown person, with no record, who is cheerfully pleasant and can say, I didn't do any of it. I think this hurts all - you know, and not just the old-timers. I mean, I think this hurts the Kamala Harrises, and it hurts Booker. It hurts anybody who's in office right now because they don't have a solution, and they become part of the mess.

GREENE: Newt Gingrich, pleasure talking to you. We really appreciate the time.

GINGRICH: Take care.

GREENE: He is the former speaker of the House. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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