Bill Clinton began to mimic a broken record: “Tax and spend, tax and spend, tax and spend, tax and spend…” He was on the campaign trail mocking his Republican opponents for their characterization of his economic plans. “That old dog won’t hunt anymore,” the future president scoffed.
On Election Day, Clinton was right. Fears that he might raise taxes once in office didn’t stop him from beating George H.W. Bush, himself a tax-hiker, in 32 states. But once Clinton was in the White House, the old dog proved it could still hunt. When Clinton announced he was shelving his planned middle-class tax cut, the tax dog attacked. “I’ve worked harder than I’ve ever worked in my life to meet that goal,” he lamented in lip-biting glory. “But I can’t.”
Soon the airwaves were filled with denunciations of the “largest tax increase in history.” Bob Dole, then Senate minority leader, even called it the biggest tax increase “in world history.” Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby, a Democrat until after the 1994 elections, greeted a presidential visit to his home state by cracking, “The tax man cometh.”
Democrats outside of safe districts were afraid to vote for the Clinton tax and budget plan. For good reason: they were dropping like flies in the unlikeliest of areas. Republicans elected mayors in Los Angeles and New York City, governors in Virginia and New Jersey. Interim Sen. Bob Krueger of Texas, appointed after Lloyd Bentsen became Clinton’s treasury secretary, voted against the new president’s tax increases. No matter — he lost 2-to-1 to Republican Kay Bailey Hutchison in a special election.
Fast forward to 2009. Once again, a Democratic president and Congress contemplate higher taxes, this time without an eye toward deficit reduction and with far higher spending than Clinton ever contemplated. Relatively few Democrats are worried about voting for Obama’s $3.55 trillion budget; Congressman Joseph Cao, a freshman Republican from Louisiana, is considering voting yes. Polls show some misgivings about the extent of Obama’s borrowing and spending, but broad trust in the president himself.
There’s little in Tuesday’s special election results that should have Democrats running scared. The race in New York’s 20th congressional district is still too close to call, with Democrat Scott Murphy officially clinging to a 65-vote lead over Republican Jim Tedisco with 6,000 absentee ballots hanging in the balance.
How this race will turn out is anyone’s guess. Projections based on county performances by the two candidates favor the Democrats; what we know of the outstanding absentee voters’ political affiliations favor the Republicans. Neither is conclusive. Congressman Pete Sessions of Texas, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Campaign Committee, pointed out that win, lose, or draw Tedisco’s showing compared favorably to recent Republican performances in the district.
But with the exception of John McCain, none of the Republicans to which the NRCC compared Tedisco were remotely competitive. Republicans consistently held this congressional district for almost thirty years, from 1978 to 2006. George W. Bush carried it twice, most recently beating John Kerry by eight points. Now Republicans fight a Democrat who opposes executing the 9/11 murderers to a tie. This is exactly the kind of district where Republicans must win to make Democrats abandon Obama as they once ran from Clinton.
And run they did. In 1993, the Democrats controlled the Senate by 57 to 43 and the House by 258 to 176. (Krueger’s loss changed the composition of the Senate to 56 to 44.) That’s comparable to Democratic congressional margins today. Yet Clinton’s tax increases only cleared each chamber by one vote. Vice President Al Gore cast the tie-breaking vote in the Senate; Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky, a Pennsylvania Democrat representing a swing district, was “credited” with the decisive vote in the House.
Every Republican in both houses of Congress voted no, including such moderate-to-liberal Republicans as Jim Jeffords of Vermont, John Chafee of Rhode Island, William Cohen of Maine (a future Clinton Cabinet member), David Durenberger of Minnesota, Mark Hatfield of Oregon, fellow Oregonian Bob Packwood, and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania. That’s twice as many soft Republican senators as Mitch McConnell must herd.
Nearly forty Democrats voted against Clinton in the House. In the Senate, he was opposed not just by Southern conservatives like Shelby, Sam Nunn of Georgia, and Bennett Johnson of Louisiana but also Richard Bryan of Nevada and Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey. We don’t know how many Democrats will vote against Obama’s budget: only seven House Democrats voted against the final version of the stimulus package and three Democratic senators, two of them fairly liberal, voted against the omnibus spending bill.
The Clinton administration tried many of the same tricks as Obama: they claimed their tax increases fell mainly on the top 1.5 percent of income earners who didn’t pay their fair share under Republican rule. They expanded the earned income credit so they could say they were offering tax cuts, in some cases to people without income tax liability. But Republicans were still able to brand it in the public mind as a tax hike, since it increased the top marginal income tax rate by nearly one-third, raised the gas tax by 4.3 cents per gallon, and slapped income taxes on up to 88 percent of some seniors’ Social Security income.
Although efforts to stop the Clinton tax increase failed — and exaggerated claims about the income-tax hike’s economic consequences came back to haunt Republicans during the Internet boom — the bipartisan opposition stopped some of the worst elements. A BTU-based energy tax was stripped from the bill and health-care reform never ended up being considered as part of the reconciliation process.
Ring a bell? Of course, there are many differences between now and then. Obama is governing in a much worse crisis. Congressional Republicans have less credibility, having stood up to Bush 43 far less often than they did Bush 41 and having recently been in the majority themselves. Obama’s approval ratings remain high, where Clinton’s once-solid ratings had collapsed to 43 percent by June 1993, at an important point in the budget debate.
Whatever grassroots anti-Obama sentiment is evidenced by Twitter-happy conservative bloggers and proliferating anti-tax tea parties, the loyal opposition still has a long way to go. Its Washington contingent will not gain much traction in this Congress until Democrats like Scott Murphy start resembling Bob Krueger and Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky.