Maybe the ‘blister’ of GOP opposition really will get popped

January 14, 2013

What would happen after a clearly acknowledged defeat for Republicans in the debt limit fight? Could this put an end, for now, to the current crisis-to-crisis atmosphere and force a period of relatively more cooperation?

It’s possible — and Clinton-era history is the place to look for guidance on one way this could play out.

In 1995, the new Republican Congressional majorities sounded pretty much like Tea Party Republicans have sounded for the last three years. They had just won a sweeping victory and achieved majorities in both Houses of Congress, and Bill Clinton wasn’t very popular. There were actually more grounds for believing at that point that they really did have the American people on their side for even their most extreme ideas — far more grounds than now, after Barack Obama was re-elected in an election which had very little good news for Republicans.

And so Republicans eagerly embraced the train wreck that eventually shut down the government twice, and eventually wound up ruining the popularity of Speaker Newt Gingrich while, if not actively helping Bill Clinton, at least certainly failing to hurt him in the long run.

What’s interesting is what came next. Republicans retained their majorities in the House and Senate for Clinton’s second term, but they basically gave up on the brinkmanship that brought them so much trouble. 

That history suggests that Greg (and Jonathan Chait) could be right that a clear and solid victory by Obama during the current debt limit, sequester, and government funding fight could permanently end the breakdown in cooperation that the president slammed in his press conference today. (Last year he said his reelection would pop the “blister” of GOP opposition, which obviously has not happened yet.)

If this happened, it would hardly mean that Democrats would always get their way after that. Instead, the example of Clinton’s second term shows that the parties could actually begin to bargain and compromise: Republicans would be able to make at least some progress on their priorities, while Obama and the Democrats would, too. That could even come in the form of a “grand bargain” for massive deficit cuts — but it could also come from other incremental, perhaps minor, deals. 

But yes: it really could happen. Republicans learned from their 1995-1996 confrontation that sometimes settling for what you can realistically get can be better than demanding it all and getting nothing, even if you’re willing to hold your breath until you turn blue. Even if you’re willing to cut off oxygen to the nation no matter how long it takes. Are Tea Partiers even more detached from reality than Newt’s revolutionaries were back then? I guess we may be about to find out.

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Greg Sargent | January 14, 2013