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.
In the 1990s, Democrats were arguing that the way to stimulate economic growth was to lower interest rates by balancing the budget (even if they preferred to achieve their deficit reduction through tax increases). Now they are back to emphasizing the stimulus effects of government “investment,” even when financed by deficit spending. Back then many centrist Democrats, ranging from Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska to former Sen. Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts, actually favored fairly ambitious entitlement reforms. Some thought Bill Clinton would join their ranks once he was safely reelected, just as he once condemned the welfare reform Dick Morris finally persuaded him to sign.
Republicans weren’t kept out of the White House “for the foreseeable future” and they held Congress for another decade. But overall it is fair to say that the politics of entitlements have favored the Democrats. Even when Republicans have won their elections, Democrats have won the argument. New entitlements like SCHIP, Medicare Part D, and Obamacare have passed-in the first two cases, with Republican votes. Gingrich’s Medicare cuts and President Bush’s proposed partial privatization of Social Security went nowhere.
SO IS THE young House Republican majority on a suicide mission? All but four of them voted for the Ryan budget. The dissenters were actually to the plan’s right. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid seemed gleeful in anticipation of holding a vote in the upper chamber, forcing blue-state GOP senators to walk the plank. But Republicans are making a much different bet.
To be sure, some Republicans are putting country before party. The debt crisis is now much worse than it was in the 1990s. So are the unfunded liabilities of the major entitlement programs. Republicans have kicked the can down the curb for the past 30 years; the last Republican president and Congress made these problems much worse. With the day of reckoning approaching, many of the newly elected Republicans and their Tea Party supporters feel they don’t have any more time to waste.
There are also long-term political considerations. However risky tackling entitlements might be in the short to medium term, Republicans face an even bigger risk if federal spending commitments continue to zoom past 24 percent of GDP over the long term. Since Ronald Reagan, taxes have been indispensable to the Republican ascendancy. If the party loses the tax issue — and with it, the ability to pit the politics of economic growth against the left’s politics of redistribution — and reverts to being tax collectors for the Democrats’ welfare state, that is a prescription for perennial minority status. Throwing the rich overboard to improve their budget plan’s poll numbers would undermine its growth effects — which are real even if some of its supporters’ projections are too wildly optimistic — and make it less of a “Path to Prosperity.”
Most of all, Republicans are banking that public concern about the burgeoning fiscal crisis has reached the point that voters are finally willing to contemplate what was once unthinkable. An April New York Times/CBS News poll found that 57 percent of the American people believed it was necessary to make changes to Medicare in order to reduce the deficit. According to the same survey, 55 percent said they wanted a smaller government that provided fewer services rather than a bigger government that offered more services. Two-thirds said they were willing to cut programs that benefited them personally rather than see their taxes go up. That includes 48 percent who described themselves as willing to cut Medicare to the 45 percent who said they were unwilling; by a 52 percent to 44 percent margin, respondents were not willing to pay more taxes.
The poll also found that Americans supported Ryan’s suggested Medicare reforms by a 47 percent to 41 percent plurality, in contrast with a competing Washington Post/ABC News poll that concluded 65 percent were opposed. But there was a significant difference in the wording of the questions: the New York Times and CBS made clear that current retirees would not be affected by the plan while the Washington Post and ABC did not.
A USA Today/Gallup poll taken around the same time found that Americans blamed high spending rather than low taxes for the deficit by a three-to-one margin. A 48 percent plurality wanted to deal with the deficit entirely or mostly through spending cuts. Thirty-seven percent favored an equal mix of tax hikes and spending reductions while only 11 percent supported mostly tax increases. Republicans enjoyed a 12-percentage-point advantage on handling the budget and a 5-point edge over the Democrats on the economy in general.
Moreover, the only age group to give majority support to the Democratic budget over the Republicans’ was the 18-to-29 cohort. Adults aged 50 to 64 preferred the Ryan/GOP plan by 47 percent to 41 percent. Actual senior citizens — those aged 65 and up-backed the Republicans 48 percent to 42 percent. The poll was taken amidst a Democratic messaging campaign against the House Republicans, with very little coordinated response outside the conservative media.
Public opinion is not entirely in the Republicans’ favor. Numerous polls have shown strong support for raising taxes on the wealthy (though fewer polls have bothered to define who is considered wealthy). Others — including surveys of self-described Tea Party sympathizers — found that Americans are more interested in cutting other parts of the budget than in trimming the entitlements driving the country’s fiscal woes. Gallup reported that 64 percent feared the Republican deficit plan would “protect the rich at the expense of everyone else.” But 71 percent believed the Democrats’ proposal “won’t go far enough to fix the problem” and 62 percent said they worried that the Democrats would use the deficit as an excuse to raise taxes.
In other words, there are weak and strong points to both parties’ positions, which is not surprising given public misgivings about the two major parties. But at this point, two things are clear. First, most Americans are not falling for the fiscal crisis denial emanating from the most advanced precincts of liberalism. Second, the idea that there has been a huge public backlash against the House Republicans’ budget is overblown — even if liberals are trying very hard to manufacture one.
GREG SARGENT, blogging for the Washington Post, wondered if anti-Republican anger over the budget was becoming “a national phenomenon.” His evidence? Sargent claimed that Rep. Lou Barletta (R-PA) and “at least eight other House GOPers” have “found themselves taking criticism from angry constituents” while “voters in three GOP-controlled districts in Arkansas have voiced concerns.” In some cases, the reports made clear that the angry constituents and concerned voices were in fact liberal activists.
That’s why many Democrats have preferred to pretend that the deficit will go away and entitlements can pay out their promised benefits if the country will simply return to the top income tax rate of the Clinton administration. This approach has the benefit of telling most people what they want to hear, but the disadvantage of being demonstrably untrue. After initially promising a spending freeze that didn’t freeze any sizeable spending programs, the president has added to this two innovations: unspecified defense budget cuts and unproven rationing by Medicare’s Independent Payment Advisory Board (IPAB). In both cases, Obama would turn to unelected bureaucrats to determine what constitutes “unnecessary spending.”
Thus Obama can avoid any specifics as to which national security commitments he will shed, what the IPAB will do to seniors’ out-of-pocket medical costs, and exactly how he will achieve his deficit-reduction goals while slamming the Republicans for their specifics. This may be smart politics, but it is bad fiscal policy. The only group of elected Democrats who have been more forthright about what their approach would actually mean to the taxpayer is the House Progressive Caucus. Their alternative budget received 77 votes. More Democrats voted “present” on the conservative Republican Study Committee’s alternative budget.
“The government could, of course, raise taxes on the wealthy to pay for somewhat higher benefits for the middle class and the poor than it could otherwise afford,” Ramesh Ponnuru observed in National Review. “But to really protect future benefit levels for middle-class retirees we would have to raise taxes on today’s middle-class workers — and it is not at all obvious that it makes sense to do so.” Ponnuru goes on to note that it is “even less obvious that, stated honestly and directly, this point of view would prove popular among the middle-class people involved.”
Which is exactly why it is never stated honestly and directly: Democrats benefit politically by pointing out the costs of Republican proposals in forgone benefits while never acknowledging the costs of their policy preferences in forgone income and economic growth. In other words, Republicans are taking a risk by admitting what the American people will have to give up. Democrats are playing it safe by pretending only plutocrats and defense contractors will have to give up anything. It’s a game older than Louisiana Democrat Russell Long’s quip, “Don’t tax me, don’t tax thee, tax that man behind the tree.”
AT SOME POINT, I and thee will eventually become that man behind the tree. But politicians — and all too often the voters who will elect them — aren’t known for long time horizons. Which brings us to the final risk for Republicans: despite long-standing GOP rhetoric to the contrary, their recent fiscal track record isn’t very good and their previous bouts of budgetary discipline have always been short-lived. If the argument that Republicans plan to shred the social contract fails, Democrats can trot out the argument that Republicans don’t really mean it. “We increased spending dramatically for two wars and an expensive prescription drug program but we didn’t pay for any of this new spending,” Obama said in his deficit reduction speech. “Instead, we made the problem worse with trillions of dollars in unpaid-for tax cuts.”
Here Obama has a point, even if he is dishonest about the new spending and tax cut extensions he signed into law himself — the result of unexpected hardships that “led us to temporarily borrow even more” — and did not pay for. To win the budget battle, this time the Republicans have to mean what they say. And to avoid the mistakes of the 1990s, the GOP will need to do more than avert a government shutdown. They must lead the country away from decades of bipartisan mendacity about government spending. That would be a show no one in Washington has ever seen before.