Picture it: Upper East Side of Manhattan, November 9, 1994. There is a buzz throughout the halls of Regis High School, and it’s not just because today is student exchange day and there will actually be girls in our school. The previous night the Republicans had won control of the House of Representatives for the first time in 40 years, and my friends and I – little Republicans in training that we all were – were quite joyous.
First period was US History, and our teacher knows that I am certainly excited about the election. So he writes on the board the following:
His point? As was the case in 1946, the Republican victory would be short-lived. Republican gains in 1946 were wiped out – and then some – in 1948. On top of that, Harry Truman was re-elected. History would repeat itself.
I scoffed at this ridiculous notion. There was certainly no way that Slick Willy Clinton could possibly earn a second term as US President. I had been counting the days to his 1996 electoral humiliation since roughly November 7, 1992. Surely this was the first stage on the road to that inevitable defeat.
Fast forward to November 5, 1996. Needless to say I was as disappointed on that night as all us Regians were at the end of that November day in senior year. (I mean come on, we’re talking about a bunch of nerdy kids from an all boys school. It took most of us a full year of college before we could properly talk to members of the opposite sex.) Mr. Anselme was right.
But not entirely. Though Bill Clinton had indeed won re-election, the election was not a total repeat of 1948. The Republicans lost a few seats, but in the end they retained control of both houses of Congress – something they had not done in successive cycles since the Hoover administration.
History is informative, and we certainly should be aware of the lessons of elections past when we think about what will happen down the line. But we should refrain from assuming that events will necessarily repeat themselves.
It’s quite possible that President Obama can recover as Bill Clinton did in the wake of the 1994 election. Like Clinton, it’s possible if not probable that President Obama will not face a formidable challenge in the ensuing presidential election. The 1996 GOP field was fairly shallow, and if Bob Dole was a fairly weak presidential nominee, there weren’t too many notable primary opponents. (For the record I actively campaigned for . . . Alan Keyes. Yeah.) Republicans have many strong candidates, but luckily for Obama most probably won’t be ready from prime time until 2016. Guys like Chris Christie, Bobby Jindal, and Marco Rubio are all at least one presidential election cycle from being true contenders. Meanwhile the 2012 field is looking to be a rag-tag collection of 2008 re-treads and other candidates that hardly get the pulse racing.
On the other hand, there are several reasons why President Obama’s fate might be quite different from that of Bill Clinton. First of all, I highly doubt President Obama’a ability to “triangulate.” There is nothing in President Obama’s past – either in his time in the Illinois legislature, the US Senate, or as president – to suggest that he is anything close to being a political centrist. Bill Clinton was perfectly happy to work with Republicans on key issues such as welfare reform and balancing the budget. But President Obama is much more of a committed leftist ideologue than his Democratic predecessor, and it seems unlikely that he will be willing to compromise and move towards the center.
Second, I personally believe that Obama simply lacks Bill Clinton’s political skills. Some may disagree with me on this score, but Obama does not have the same ability as Bill Clinton to play Jedi mind tricks with centrist voters. Sure many people were awed by Obama’s seeming oratorical greatness, but that has worn off to some degree. Like him or not, Clinton just had an amazing charisma that I just don’t see in Barack Obama. Obama has also been lucky. His Senate Republican challenger dropped out because of a sex scandal, John Edwards’s campaign collapsed before it began and Obama became the Progressive choice against Hillary, and then the market meltdown helped seal his presidential election victory. Clinton also had his share of luck as well, but he’s just a more skilled politico.
Also, unlike last time, Republicans – theoretically at least – have the lessons of their recent leadership experience to draw upon. While Republicans have sometimes earned the sobriquet of the “stupid party,” John Boehner, Eric Cantor, and others within the party leadership can look at the experiences of the Gingrich era and avoid making some of the same missteps. Then there is the tea party wild card. I fully expect the tea party movement to continue to actively monitor Congress and to “act up” should Republicans get out of line. Now this element could wind up being a hindrance should public perception turn against the tea party, so that’s why I’ve labeled the tea party a wild card.
Finally, there’s the fact that the Republicans have not won majority control of the Senate. To be honest I never thought control of the Senate was that big of a deal, but I was hoping that Republicans would wind up with the 51 seats necessary for majority control. Now I find myself agreeing with those who think that it might not be such a bad thing that the Republicans fell short.
Getting things done in the House is comparatively simple, especially when you have a fairly substantial and unified majority. It’s not exactly easy to pass major legislation, but compared to the Senate it’s a breeze. For example, we all know that health care repeal won’t happen so long as Barack Obama is president, but nonetheless it is symbolically important for Republicans to pass a repeal bill in the next Congress. That can probably be accomplished in the House without excessive difficulty. If the Republicans had a slim majority in the Senate, repeal would have been much more difficult. Sure the Democrats could have let the Republicans pass a repeal bill knowing full well that President Obama would veto such a measure, but they could have also put up many more roadblocks along the way. And if there was a long, drawn out fight over a repeal bill that had no hope of being signed, Democrats could have made a case that Republicans dithered trying to pass repeal while the economy remained stagnant. And if the Democrats did block health care repeal in the Senate under Republican control, they could have painted the GOP as ineffectual leaders.
Now the situati0n is much different. Republicans can do what they want in the House and rightfully point out that the Democrats are in control of the White House and Senate and are blocking their reform measures. Now some might find such crass political considerations to be distasteful, but that’s reality. Simply put, President Obama does not have a 100% Republican-controlled Congress to act as a foil over the next two years.
Keep in kind I am making no predictions here. I have no doubt that I would fare little better now than I did at the age of 17. I think it’s equally absurd to assert with confidence now that President Obama will be defeated or re-elected. But I do think that there are substantial reasons to believe that 2012 will not be anything like 1996. Who knows, maybe it could be a repeat of 1948 and the Democrats will enjoy a complete rout. Or, maybe it will be something quite different . . .