The 1990s precedent for a Democratic bounce-back
As congressional Democrats plotted their endgame strategy for health-care reform, the question looming in their minds was: How do we reduce our risks in the November midterm elections? What outcome and what procedures will the voters find least objectionable?
The widespread assumption is that the worst-case scenario, the outcome that would be most damaging to President Obama and the Democratic Party, would be to lose control of the House or Senate, or both.
But there is another view -- one that holds it would be more damaging if the Democrats emerge with reduced numbers but the same leadership, still nominally in control but with less capacity to overcome the entrenched partisanship prevailing in Congress.
This alternative view looks back 16 years to the election that stripped the Democrats of their majority at the end of the second year of the Clinton administration. The 1994 results were widely seen as a complete repudiation of the first two years of Bill Clinton's presidency, marked by the failure of his effort at health-care reform. The wounded president even had to argue that he was still "relevant" to the Washington political process.
But only two years later, in 1996, Clinton coasted to a second term over Bob Dole and was able to brag that he had signed into law measures reforming welfare and putting the nation on the path to a balanced budget.
What happened is that Clinton and the newly installed House speaker, Newt Gingrich, after testing their muscle against each other in all-out combat in 1995, decided it was better for both of them to negotiate agreements in 1996.
The story is told in full in "The Pact: Bill Clinton, Newt Gingrich, and the Rivalry That Defined a Generation," by political scientist Steven M. Gillon.
As Gillon noted, the 1996 election made Clinton the first Democrat since FDR to win a second term and Gingrich the first Republican speaker since 1928 to see his party win two successive majorities in Congress. "Both men felt the election results justified their strategies," Gillon pointed out.
"The election outcome," he continued, "underscored how the two men had influenced and shaped each other in ways that neither fully appreciated. Clinton campaigned against a cartoon version of Gingrich even as he adopted much of his agenda. Gingrich, who came to office promising a revolution, retained control of the Congress by practicing moderation. They found themselves closer to each other, and further from the ideological fringe of their respective parties, than ever before." So close, in fact, that they secretly discussed moving on to reform Social Security and Medicare in 1997 -- until Monica happened and everything was blocked by the fight over impeachment.
Could history repeat? A majority of today's congressional Republicans are even more emphatically conservative than those of Gingrich's day, but the Republican leaders are pragmatic politicians from competitive states, Kentucky and Ohio, who are clearly capable of bending with the wind. Sobered by the responsibility of being in the majority, neither Mitch McConnell nor John Boehner would be likely to persist solely in the politics of saying "No." As for Obama, we now know, if we did not before, that he is most comfortable in the middle ground between the liberal wing of his party and the bulk of Republicans, freed by his brief personal history in Washington from the historic antagonisms that impede dealings between the parties.
Obviously, there are risks in divided government, and stalemate is possible. But it is certainly arguable that the greater risk -- of deadlock and inaction -- might be in returning Nancy Pelosi to the speakership and Harry Reid to the majority leadership, but with fewer Democrats in each chamber ready to muscle things through.
Keep that in mind as you watch Democrats and Republicans maneuver through these latest steps on the tortuous trail to health-care reform.