Congresses Compared
From the November 29, 2010, issue of NR.


Ramesh Ponnuru

Next year in Washington is not going to be a replay of 1995. The analogy is on everyone’s mind in the capital. Many Republicans worry that President Obama will win the public-relations war against Speaker-to-be John Boehner as handily as Bill Clinton bested Newt Gingrich. They should relax.

The parallels are obvious. Both times, a young Democrat had succeeded George Bush in the presidency and then worked with a Democratic Congress to push a liberal agenda. In the next election Republicans ran against big government and won elections up and down the ballot, picking up governorships and seats in the Senate, the House, and state legislatures. Pollster Kristen Soltis points out that much of the data from the 2010 election looks nearly identical to the numbers from 1994. In both elections, for example, roughly 55 percent of independents chose Republican congressional candidates.

Republicans don’t want what happened after the last Republican takeover to recur. During the winter of 1995–96, the new Republican Congress battled with Clinton over the budget — a battle that reached its climax in partial shutdowns of the government. The public sided with Clinton. His approval ratings rose while Gingrich’s plummeted.

The conservative campaign to limit the size and scope of the federal government never really recovered from this defeat. Within a few years congressional Republicans were beginning to run for reelection on pork and incumbency rather than reform, and George W. Bush was advancing a “compassionate conservatism” as a way of distinguishing himself from the Gingrichites.

But there are several differences between 2011 and 1995 that should work in favor of Republicans.

First, Republicans won a larger House majority. In 1995, Republicans had the smallest majority of any Congress since the 1950s. Conservatives were a majority of the majority, but not a majority of the House. Holding the conference together on votes was a constant challenge: Budgets would be too tight for party moderates and too loose for conservative firebrands.

Boehner’s task will be easier. Republicans have the largest majority they have had since the 1940s. For the first time in the modern history of conservatism, the House has an outright conservative majority. Michael Barone says that House Republicans are in the sweet spot: They have enough members that Boehner can let some Republicans out of tough votes, but not so many that they have no cohesion.

Second, Republicans did not take the Senate, as they did in 1995. As a result, the public will be less likely to hold them responsible for governing the country. When House Republicans passed legislation that could not pass a Republican Senate, conservatives were demoralized and the party looked incompetent. Neither effect will be as pronounced if a Democratic Senate kills House-passed conservative legislation.

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, meanwhile, will have an easier time keeping his conference together in the minority. Getting Rand Paul to sign off on a McConnell agenda would be a lot harder than getting him to agree to oppose Harry Reid’s. Finally, if there are veto fights with President Obama, they will necessarily involve legislation that had significant Democratic support.