The idea of a grand showdown on spending had long been a staple of conservative analysis. Even before Reagan's inaugural, he had been approached by one prominent conservative who urged him to force a showdown over the debt ceiling and simply refuse to sign on to one until the Democratic Congress reined in its spending plans. Reagan rejected this idea with a comment I wish I had understood better at the time. "I wear the white hat," he said, "and the man in the white hat doesn't force that kind of crisis." The conservative activist who told me that story was convinced that Reagan would have won such a showdown. For fifteen years I agreed with him, but I was to learn something about the American people that too many conservatives don't appreciate. They want their leaders to have principled disagreements but they want these disagreements to be settled in constructive ways. That is not, of course, what our own activists were telling us. They were all gung ho for a brutal fight over spending and taxes. We mistook their enthusiasm for the views of the American public.
To underestimate such a politician is a serious error, and it is, I am afraid, an error we committed in 1995-96. The test was whether we could force Clinton to sign a budget agreement by refusing to pass bills that did not contain our reforms. Well, we went head-to-head with him over the budget and lost ... We not only lost the battle over the legislation itself, but the far more important one for the public's understanding and approval of what we were trying to do. The second shutdown, which stretched for three weeks over the 1995 Christmas holidays, seared into the public's mind a deeply negative impression of our efforts.
Haley Barbour understood the situation far better than the rest of us. For six weeks he tried to persuade us that our strategy was wrong. We were not going to get a budget agreement, he said, and every time we met with Clinton to negotiate, we were only strengthening his position. Haley would have had us cut off negotiations by late November, never meet at the White House and never close down the government ... Haley of course turned out to be right. The longer negotiations went on the stronger Clinton became.