The former Kansas senator was the party’s nominee for president in 1996, in the campaign that followed the last big government shutdowns. His opponent, Bill Clinton, succeeded in wrapping the brouhaha -- then, as now, blamed more on Republicans in Congress than on the Democratic president -- around Dole’s neck, tight as a noose and just as lethal, politically.
In ads and speeches, Clinton repeatedly castigated the “Dole-Gingrich” agenda, tying the senator to the prime mover behind the shutdowns, House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Dole was trapped, as repudiating Clinton by pointing out the differences between himself and Gingrich, a fellow Republican, would have alienated the Gingrich backers Dole needed in his White House bid.
The course of the current shutdown is not clear -- including whether it will be shorter or longer than the 26 days total the government closed its doors in two periods the winter before the 1996 election. Already, however, members of Congress are vastly unpopular, and catching the same sort of blame as Gingrich’s army did back then, particularly as the victims of shutdown are delineated: kids with cancer; military families; emergency workers.
For those who would be GOP candidates next time, then, a little distancing is in order. That is far easier to pull off if you’re not residing in the Beltway or its environs right now.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, for one, has taken on the Washington contretemps as Example A of how not to do things -- an approach that artfully helps to demonstrate his willingness to work with Democrats, the dominant party in the state in which he’s seeking reelection.
“I told my staff today: If I were down there, I would say, ‘Listen, we’ve got seven hours to go. Guess where you’re spending the next seven hours? Right here in the Roosevelt Room. We’re not leaving until we get a solution to this problem,’” the Republican governor said in Red Bank earlier this week, just before the shutdown took effect.
“I think everybody’s handled it poorly,” Christie said.
Later, at a groundbreaking for a university building in Glassboro, he pounded home the message again with the help of state Senate President Stephen Sweeney, a Democrat who lauded Christie for working with his party to boost the state’s education spending.
“As Steve very well put it, it is in stark contrast to what we're seeing right now in the nation's capital, where not only won't people work together, they won't even talk to each other,” Christie said. “And you know that doesn't happen here … even when we're angry with each other we don't let ourselves stop talking to each other. And those relationships are the type of relationships that allow you to make the progress that we're all noting her today.”
A potential 2016 competitor, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, used his position as chairman of the Republican Governors Assn. to stiff-arm his compadres in the Capitol.
“Republican governors are not going to take a back seat to anyone in Washington anymore,” he said in a statement, adding: “We are no longer going to outsource the Republican brand to the talking heads in Washington. We are not going to allow the Republican Party to be defined by the dysfunction in Washington. We are not going to allow the antics in Washington to damage or destroy what we stand for.”
For good measure, Jindal tweeted: “There's a crisis every week in Washington D.C.”
It can be a little tougher to gain distance from a perch inside the Capitol. On Wednesday, Ohio Sen. Rob Portman outlined for reporters a grand framework for the budget that he called “a step in the right direction.” Portman, who was short-listed for vice president on the 2012 Republican ticket, said he was trying to sell both parties on his plan.
“We fought that fight; we fought hard,” he said. “We’ve done what we can do at this point, including taking the government into shutdown.”
Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, meanwhile, was also seeking a bit of remove from the dust-up that he, more than anyone else, had forced. (Cruz kicked off the effort with a 21-hour verbal tour de force that included references to Nazis, the “Star Wars" empire and its rebels, and “Green Eggs and Ham.” Though, were he to stay in sync with the message of the Dr. Seuss masterpiece, he would have suggested at least trying Obamacare, not the opposite.)