The potential government shutdown is not just history repeating itself between a Democrat President and a Republican House.  It’s also a repeat of a key role played by government employee unions.

What’s different now is that the public has awakened to how they’ve been duped with false promises about big government.

In the 1995-96 shutdowns, the public worker unions reportedly played a huge role behind the scenes; today their role has been brought into the open, becoming common knowledge even before the mass union protests at the Wisconsin state capitol.

President Obama’s allegiance toward government unions is well-known.  The failed $800-billion stimulus was mostly about protecting government jobs.  His minions in Organizing for America have orchestrated the Wisconsin protests, which Obama labeled “an assault on unions.”  And it’s well-known how the unions spent $400-million for the 2008 election.

That’s the backdrop as House Republicans insist on billions in spending cuts before they will approve funds for the rest of government.  The House spent long days and nights in session to create their plan; the Senate Democrats sit inactive instead, criticizing lots but doing nothing.

So the action comes from the public workers, as their demonstrations provide visual proof of who wants big government to continue unchecked.  Their key role was behind-the-scenes in the 1995-96 shutdowns, but every bit as vital.

These unions believe they will benefit from accenting the negative of a shutdown, just as they did when Bill Clinton was President.  That story is rarely told, but needs to be.

As reported by The Washington Times in March, 1996:

President Clinton’s close ties with federal employee unions enabled him to weather two record government shutdowns and an unprecedented $80 billion raid on federal retirement funds while laying the blame on Republicans.

Internal documents from both the administration and unions reveal close coordination between the unions and Mr. Clinton in developing a strategy of confrontation with Republicans over the spending bills needed to keep the government open and prevent hundreds of thousands of government employees from being furloughed.

The unions not only took the administration’s side in the confrontation, but the largest union – the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) – urged Mr. Clinton to veto the bills and shut the government down for weeks rather than compromise with Republicans.

Meanwhile, the unions provided critical political cover for the administration and Democrats on Capitol Hill by waging an extensive public relations campaign designed to blame the confrontation and shutdowns entirely on the Republicans, particularly on the House’s 73 freshmen.

Leaders of the union, which says it represents 700,000 of the government’s 2 million employees, deduced that throwing employees out of work for a few weeks with no guarantee of pay would be better than the higher federal pension contributions and large agency cuts the GOP was planning, which might force extensive layoffs.

Now our 2011 showdown is different both because the public opposition to big government is sky-high and because of widespread awareness that public employee unions are a major factor in the explosive growth of government.  Their activism brought them salary, benefit and retirement packages that dwarf many in the private sector, but at the expense of the rest of us.  As other Americans feel the pain of hard times, they also resent the unshared sacrifice from many who call themselves public servants.

Today is also different because the Tea Party movement is paying extreme attention—using modern communications and social media to bypass liberal reporters who dominated the coverage of the last shutdown.

That’s why this time is different.  A shutdown is really just a slowdown, because hundreds of thousands of federal workers remain on the job to defend the country, patrol the borders, keep travel flowing, tend to VA patients, and send out Social Security checks.  (And the postal service stays open.)

The real battle is for the hearts and minds of Americans, lest their desire wane to get government back under control should wane under shutdown stress.

Those who wish a shutdown are few in number, but so are those who can be manipulated into blaming conservatives.  Their goal is to downsize government, not to shut it down.