A Republican House bets this isn’t the Clinton years all over again.
Since the Republican victory in last year’s elections was frequently compared to 1994, it was not terribly surprising that many observers expected the next two years to be a repeat of 1995-96. The conventional wisdom held that the resurgent Republicans would overreach, allowing an unpopular Democratic president a new lease on life and an improbable second term. The new Republican-controlled House would reprise the role of Newt Gingrich’s revolutionaries, while Barack Obama replayed Bill Clinton.
Six months into this new era of divided government, a rerun of the Seinfeld decade remains a plausible scenario. Conservative commentator and Republican campaign veteran Jim Pinkerton has gone so far as to argue that the “Tea Party-ized House” will make such an inviting target that Obama will emulate not Clinton but Harry Truman, running entirely against a “Do Nothing” Congress in 2012. But it is important to note that there are key differences between the 1990s and now.
First, no current Republican leader has emerged as a PR villain of Gingrich-like proportions. Polls show House Speaker John Boehner is becoming better known and less popular, but not to the point where his photo in a campaign commercial is a silver bullet for Democratic candidates. He isn’t as given to bombastic pronouncements as Gingrich. Voters who pay only a modest amount of attention to politics are more likely to be familiar with his tears than his views or public remarks on controversial issues.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has penetrated the public consciousness even less than Boehner, causing Democrats to look around for other congressional Republicans to demonize. Congresswoman Michele Bachmann of Minnesota is one target for liberals eager to relive their two-minute hate against Sarah Palin, but she has yet to acquire Palin’s name identification. House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan has become another potential Gingrich figure, though his calm and cerebral manner might persuade Democrats to stick to demagoguery about his proposed spending cuts instead. No matter how it treats his 2012 budget proposal, Time will probably not run a holiday cover story comparing Ryan to the Grinch who stole Christmas.
While the Democrats’ retention of the Senate has frustrated many conservative ambitions, it has also complicated any media narrative about right-wing control of Washington. Where Clinton seemed besieged by Republicans on all sides of Capitol Hill, nothing can reach Obama’s desk without at least token bipartisan support. Tea Party senators like Rand Paul are as likely to be in opposition to legislation that emerges from the Senate as they are to be ramming conservative policy proposals down the president’s throat. In their imagined sequel to the 1996 election, Democrats may need Newt Gingrich to play himself by running for president.
BUT THERE ARE a lot of similarities between then and now as well, and these commonalities have guided the major players in the 2011-12 political drama. When they entered into their initial budget confrontation with Obama, it was clear that whatever the Tea Party activists may have wanted, the Republican leadership was determined to avoid a government shutdown. Despite major changes in the media over the past 16 years, such as the rise of conservative-leaning Fox News, GOP leaders seemed convinced that a shutdown would play as badly for Republicans this year as it did in 1995. New York Times columnist Ross Douthat opined that Boehner “made it abundantly clear — in word, deed, and especially body language — that he wanted the government shut down about as much as Indiana Jones wants to be locked in a room full of cobras.”
Meanwhile, President Obama has forced himself to copy Clinton’s triangulation strategy even though it manifestly runs counter to his ideological and temperamental inclinations. He signed a temporary extension of the Bush tax cuts for upper-income earners, although he clearly wasn’t very happy about it. He reached a budget agreement with the House Republicans that cut at least some spending. (That time, Obama did pretend to be happy.) He fine-tuned his fiscal 2012 budget to appear more serious about deficit reduction in response to the Ryan plan. And Obama has quietly adopted most of George W. Bush’s national security policies, down to launching another preventive war against a Muslim country and enlisting General David Petraeus — the man who oversaw the surge in Iraq — to run the country’s intelligence apparatus.
Virtually all of these moves were bitterly unpopular with Obama’s liberal base, and the current president is much less comfortable distancing himself from progressives than was Clinton. Obama was nominated in large part as a reaction against the Clintons’ triangulating ways, a successful version of Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential campaign. But changing political circumstances have led the president to embrace the Clintons’ Democratic Leadership Council logic: he believes independents will reward at least the appearance of responsible behavior on fiscal policy and national defense while angry liberals will have nowhere else to go. Daily Kos visitors aren’t going to vote for Mitt Romney.
Yet Clinton-era triangulation never made partisan attacks on Republicans less potent. In fact, because he was ceding substantive policy ground to the GOP on issues ranging from welfare reform to the capital gains tax, Clinton needed to sharpen the rhetorical distinctions between the parties, not dull them. So even as he ended up working with Republicans to balance the budget, he also promised to protect the country from their cuts — real and imagined — to Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, education, and the environment. He challenged the Republicans to be fiscally responsible, and then punished them for it at the polls when they complied.
That’s exactly what the Democrats hope to repeat this time around. House Republicans dodged a government shutdown by agreeing to a continuing resolution that to some extent fudged its $38.5 billion in spending reductions, but they have passed a budget that is breathtakingly honest about the scope of entitlement cuts that will be necessary to keep the federal tax burden from soaring past its postwar average of 18 to 20 percent of GDP. Where the Gingrich Republicans promised to grow Medicare more slowly, the Ryan Republicans want to partially privatize Medicare. While the Gingrich Republicans favored a smaller increase in Medicare recipients’ benefits, the Ryan Republicans are actually cutting benefits (albeit on the theory that they can also cut costs).
WHAT HASN’T CHANGED at all is the standard Democratic talking point. In 1995, Republicans estimated that their Medicare reforms would save $270 billion while most estimates pegged their proposed tax cut at $245 billion. Naturally, Democrats argued that these figures proved Republicans were cutting Medicare benefits-even abolishing Medicare-in order to pay for tax cuts for the rich. “Finally we learn the truth about how the Republicans want to eliminate Medicare,” warned one 1996 Clinton campaign ad. Dozens of other Democratic commercials in down-ballot races used similar scare tactics.
Ever strong believers in recycling, Democrats have dusted off their 1990s rhetoric and reused it in attacks on the Ryan plan. “Newt Gingrich has said Medicare should wither on the vine,” intoned Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) “Well, this Republican budget would chop it down.” Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) also took aim at Ryan’s proposed block granting of Medicaid: “They use Medicaid as a piggy bank in order to avoid asking the people at the very top of our economic ladder, the very richest in our society, the highest income earners of millions of dollars or more, to avoid paying their fair share of taxes.”
Higher-brow liberals have chimed in with similar talking points. Jonathan Chait writes in the New Republic that Ryan has consciously decided to “cut Medicare in order to cut taxes for the rich.” Paul Krugman, writing in the New York Times, agrees “a large part of the supposed savings from spending cuts would go, not to reduce the deficit, but to pay for tax cuts.” John Cassidy blogged for the New Yorker that the Republican budget “featured slashing reductions in domestic spending, more big tax cuts for the rich, and the conversion of Medicare to a voucher program.” Cassidy concluded, “By spelling out what the Republicans would do to Medicare and Medicaid, [Ryan] may well have deprived his party of the White House for the foreseeable future.”
That’s exactly what the Democrats are betting. Concerns Republicans would cut Medicare certainly helped deprive them of the White House in 1996. Bob Dole ineffectually decried the Democrats’ “Mediscare” tactics, but the then 73-year-old lost the 65 and over vote by 50 percent to 43 percent. Dole also failed to carry senior-heavy Florida, which had been the second-largest remaining weapon in the GOP’s electoral vote arsenal just four years before.
Then as now, Republicans argued that they were not just cutting Medicare but “saving” the program by preventing its insolvency. And they had some advantages in the '90s that don’t obtain now. The baby boomers were then in their peak earning years, not entering retirement. The economy was on the cusp of a high-tech boom, not coming off the Great Recession. The GOP’s $500 per child tax credit was harder to characterize as a tax cut for the wealthy than lowering the top marginal tax rate to 25 percent.
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