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Congresses Compared

by Ramesh Ponnuru

History need not, and likely will not, repeat itself

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.

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.

Eighth, Obama has to deal with a larger, angrier, and more implacable Left than Clinton did. The Left was chastened after three Republican presidential terms when Clinton took office. When Clinton signed welfare reform in 1996, a few of his appointees resigned but there was no revolt. Obama cannot be so sure that MoveOn.org, MSNBC, etc., will stay in his corner if he triangulates. His freedom of action is more circumscribed.

Ninth, Boehner isn’t Gingrich. The new Republican leader is sometimes emotional — he teared up repeatedly during his election-night press conference — but he is not grandiose. Gingrich, by contrast, told confidants in 1995 that he was “moving the planet.” Boehner has learned from the experience of Gingrich and Tom DeLay that he is better off keeping a low profile. No congressman can win media cycles day after day going up against a president one-on-one. Boehner knows it. Boehner isn’t as full of ideas as Gingrich was, but he won’t make as many mistakes either.

Tenth, McConnell isn’t Bob Dole. McConnell is smarter and more interested in policy, and he understands people to his right. Most important, perhaps, he isn’t running for president. Dole was running for president, and one of his principal rivals, Phil Gramm, was also in the Senate. Dole had to run the Senate, pretend to be the movement conservative he wasn’t, and negotiate with a president he was trying to replace. McConnell doesn’t have any of these burdens.

Eleventh, the public seems more concerned about federal spending than it was in 1995. Back then, the deficit was seen as a symbol of the irresponsibility of the ruling class in Washington, D.C. Now it is seen as an imminent threat to the country’s future. That won’t make cutting spending easy, but it should make it less politically dangerous.

Republicans’ memories of 1995 are a little distorted. They overstate the electoral fallout of their defeat in the budget showdown. Clinton would have won reelection in 1996 even if there had been no budget battle: It was a great year, with peace, prosperity, and falling crime rates. Republicans didn’t lose that many seats, either, and those congressmen who lost almost all did so because they had made personal mistakes (such as not tending to their districts) rather than because they had tried to cut Medicare.

But in any case, next year isn’t going to be a rerun of 1995. If Republicans come a cropper, it will be for different reasons than they did last time.

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