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


Ramesh Ponnuru

Third, the fact that Republicans came up short in the Senate elections will probably temper their triumphalism. At the start of 1995, a lot of conservatives believed that history was on their side and would roll over anyone standing in their way. They thought Clinton was a sure loser. The Republican takeover was widely described as a “revolution.” This time Republicans are well aware that Obama could win reelection and that Republicans could lose House seats in 2012.

Fourth, having been through 1995, Republicans have learned the lesson that you can’t govern from the Hill. That year Republicans tried to restrain the growth of Medicare. The decision to take on a popular entitlement was the most important reason Clinton won the budget battle. Republicans will not try anything nearly as ambitious this time. Either they will make a deal with Obama — which would require him to make the first move — or they will explain that real reform cannot come until Republicans get reinforcements in Washington. Boehner was surely aware that his election-night comment that “the president sets the agenda” would be his most widely quoted remark.

Fifth, the new Republican majority is more seasoned. The last Republican House before 1995 adjourned in 1955. Almost none of the Republicans who took Congress in 1995 had ever been in the majority. Most of them had not even contemplated being in the majority until the 1994 campaign. The new majority includes many congressmen who were in the old majority until January 2007. They know the ropes — and so do many of their aides. There won’t be as much need for on-the-job training.

Sixth, the new Republican majority is less factionalized than the old one. The moderate contingent was much larger in 1995, though it was declining even then. Journalists said that Gingrich would have a hard time managing the new conservative members of Congress — the “revolutionaries” — just as they are now saying that Boehner will have his hands full with the new congressmen from the tea parties. But House Republicans have been operationally in sync with the tea parties since the start of the Obama presidency, uniformly opposing both the stimulus and Obamacare and almost unanimously opposing cap-and-trade and card check as well.

Seventh, Obama isn’t Clinton. The former president started his political career in a relatively conservative state. During his governorship, Arkansas gave its electoral votes to Republican presidential candidates three times. Clinton also ran the Democratic Leadership Council, which sought to pull the party rightward. Obama has had much less experience of appealing to conservative and moderate voters. He did it in the general election of 2008 only under exceptional circumstances and with a very short record. It’s not clear that he is interested in “triangulating” against congressional Democrats and Republicans, much less that he is capable of it. Keep in mind that at this point in his presidency Clinton had already relied on Republican votes to win a high-profile fight over trade. Obama has done nothing similar.

Most analysts trace the beginning of Clinton’s comeback to the Oklahoma City bombing, when he was able to become the country’s mourner-in-chief while also linking the atrocity to his opponents’ antipathy to big government. Obama seems far less deft. His response to the Fort Hood shootings last year showed no ability to rally the country at a moment of trauma.


Sign up for free NRO e-mails today:

NRO Polls on LockerDome

Subscribe to National Review