The Lessons of 1994

Democrats are still absorbing the electoral drubbing they suffered at the polls this week. As the New York Times reported, nearly every congressional district in America voted more Republican in 2010 than in 2008. Republicans rode a wave of well-financed and carefully orchestrated (but no less genuine) public anger at a struggling economy that shows little signs of improving. Gleeful conservative pundits are already predicting that the election marked the beginning of the end of the Obama presidency. Dispirited Democrats worry they may be right.

But are they?

The Republican victory of 60 seats in the House ranks with other midterm landslides in 1938, 1946, and 1994. Each time, the incumbent Democratic president went on to win two years later -- Roosevelt secured a third term in 1940, Truman won in 1948, and Bill Clinton went on to defeat Bob Dole in 1996. Historical contingencies played a role in the comebacks.The mobilization for war boosted FDR, and a lackluster and overconfident Thomas Dewey played into Truman's no-holds-barred campaign strategy in 1948. Newt Gingrich's self-inflected wounds made Clinton's job easier. All three were helped by an improving economy.

The 1994 midterm election may be the most relevant, however, and it may suggest a possible strategy for Obama to regain the lost momentum of his presidency. Then, as now, the fight for ultimate control in Washington over will be over the budget.

For the the next few days and weeks, both sides will play nice, mouthing all the appropriate words about "reaching across the aisle" and seeking "genuine bipartisanship." In reality, they will be maneuvering, positioning themselves for the big prize in 2012. The presumptive new speaker, John Boehner, may be more inclined to bipartisanship than the fiery Newt Gingrich, but he will be under enormous pressure to improve the party's chances to gain the White House in the next election. Making deals, and blurring the ideological lines separating the two parties, is not a recipe for winning presidential elections.

The stage is set for an intense ideological battle. The real test will come next year when House Republicans are forced to produce their own budget. During the campaign, GOP candidates made vague and contradictory promises to cut taxes and reduce the deficit while protecting popular middle class entitlement programs such as social security and medicare. As nearly every economist will tell you, the math doesn't add up. It is politically attractive, but mathematically impossible to cut taxes, reduce the deficit and leave social security and medicare intact. In drawing up their budget, House Republicans will need to make tough, and politically painful, choices.

The process itself promises to be messy, exposing the deep divisions within the party. The post-Reagan Republican party is divided into two groups: those who cling to the supply-side notion that cutting taxes will solve most economic problems; and those who believe that cutting spending and balancing the budget should be the top priority. Social conservatives add another combustible element to the mix.

Finding some common ground will involve patience and compromise. But compromise is not high on the agenda for most of the new class of 2010. They are not going to Washington to make deals. Like their counterparts in the "class of 1994," they are more ideological, less willing to engage in the backroom horse-trading needed to reach deals and get legislation passed.

Even if Republicans can reach consensus on the budget, the final product will be vulnerable to attack. Until now, Obama has been fighting against a poll-tested Republican mirage. Beginning next year, even before he has an opponent, he will have issues. If House Republicans fail to take aggressive steps to balance the budget they will appear hypocritical; if they cut sensitive middle class entitlement programs, while also reducing taxes on the rich, they will be labeled as heartless.

There is a much bigger problem confronting the Republicans. It has to do with their simple-minded view of how Americans view government. Many years ago two political scientists observed that Americans are philosophically conservative but operationally liberal. A belief in small government and low taxes is a part of our DNA. But especially in the days since the New Deal, we have also come to expect the federal government to solve many of our problems. This contradiction manifests itself in numerous ways. Any benefit that you receive from Washington is considered a God-earned right; the money someone else gets is called waste and fraud. Many older Americans are happy to cash their social security checks while fretting about the threat of creeping socialism. Its not that we are hypocritical; we are just conflicted.

Republicans seem to appreciate only the "small government" side of the equation, which works better as a campaign strategy than as a governing philosophy. In the budget battles of 1995, Gingrich never questioned his "mandate" to balance the budget and reduce taxes on the wealthy, even if it meant cutting the rate of growth in medicare spending. President Clinton responded by brilliantly co-opted the rhetoric of limited government, while positioning himself as the defender of the middle class social programs. Instead of ignoring the contradiction, Clinton embraced it.

Eventually, Gingrich learned his lesson, moved toward the center, and worked with the Clinton White House to pass important legislation. But it took two politically costly government shutdowns to purge some, but not all, of the House Republicans of their hubris.

In 2010, Republicans appear poised to repeat the mistakes of the 1990s. The question is: Will Obama be tactile enough to use it to his advantage?

Steven M. Gillon is professor of history at the University of Oklahoma and author of The Pact: Bill Clinton, Newt Gingrich and the Rivalry that Defined a Generation (Oxford, 2008).

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