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Robert Bennett: Are Republican congressional leaders capable of governing?

The Capitol in Washington is seen on the Labor Day holiday, Monday, Sept. 2, 2013.
The Capitol in Washington is seen on the Labor Day holiday, Monday, Sept. 2, 2013.
Jacquelyn Martin, Associated Press

It’s been said that those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it. OK, then, some history.

In 1994, Republicans won control of both houses of Congress for the first time in 40 years. I watched as one Democratic senator after another announced his retirement because he was certain that control of the White House would follow in 1996. But it didn’t. Clinton won handily. What happened?

There are many reasons why an election goes the way it does, but there is widespread agreement that a major contributor to Clinton’s win was the fact that House Republicans, assuming that their ascension to power would be permanent, overreached in 1995. They shut down the government in order to get their way — all of “their way” — on the issue of government spending. The fight went on for weeks, and when the government reopened, Clinton was the clear political winner. He was seen as the grownup who had refused to cave in to a group of spoiled brats. Newt Gingrich, who no doubt had presidential dreams as he led the charge for the shutdown, was dumped as House speaker and George W. Bush tried to separate himself from the whole mess by billing himself as a “uniter, not a divider.”

Fast-forward to 2010. Again, the election put the House back into Republican hands with a Democratic president in the White House, this time Obama. Again, this time led by Ted Cruz, there were cries of “Let’s have a government shutdown!” It came, and the only reason Republicans were not damaged as much as they had been 16 years earlier was because the impact of the shutdown was eclipsed by the furor over the massive failure of the Obamacare rollout, which came just a few weeks later.

On to 2014, which columnist Charles Krauthammer put into this perspective. “Republicans didn’t win this election,” he said, “the Democrats lost it.” Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell understood that and pledged no more shutdown talk. Looking ahead to 2016, he says the party’s first responsibility is to demonstrate that it can govern. Some of his troops didn’t get the memo. There is still talk of shutdown.

It’s aimed at the appropriations bill for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), a “must pass — must sign” bill. Such a measure is always seen as a vehicle to which other things can be attached, and some Republicans have loaded it up accordingly. Too accordingly, say the Democrats; in its present form, the bill won’t move. Those who refuse to learn from history — compromise a little to get a deal — are threatening a departmental shutdown, an over-reach of Gingrichean proportions. Like Bill Clinton before him, Obama could emerge as the leader trying to do what’s right for the country, with the Republicans typecast as nothing but a bunch of ideologues who won’t take a partial “yes” for an answer.

I believe that McConnell will prevail on this one because electoral pressure is on his side. In 2016, the fervent plea will again be for change. Republicans don’t want to face voters desperate for a change in the White House with an excuse to make one in the Congress as well. Another attempt to shut down would foster such a view.

So, Republicans, whether you are in the House or the Senate, listen to your leaders on this one. Stop those among you who think they can get everything they want on every bill they see. Enact your program bit by bit, settling for a little here and a little there while you demonstrate to voters that you are capable of governing.

Robert Bennett, former U.S. senator from Utah, is a part-time teacher, researcher and lecturer at the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics.