Monday, November 16, 2009


Partying Like It's 1994

Like the Ghost of Christmas Past, the specter of 1994 haunts the contemporary political scene. The Obama administration is desperate to learn from the mistakes of the Clintons in 1993 and 1994; the Republicans use those years to inspire them to remember how quickly the electoral landscape can change.

In the clearest example of this dynamic, the Obama White House made the early decision to allow Congress to take the lead on health care -- a 180 degree move from the 90s effort when Bill and Hillary Clinton rode roughshod over the health-care drafting process. That was a decision that ended up backfiring and creating much ill-will between the two ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. Of course, going in the opposite direction has caused problems of its own -- as the current health-care process has demonstrated. Similarly, administration is trying to stay away from blatantly controversial social issues, so as to avoid a repeat of Clinton's gays-in-the-military debacle. Indeed, one could look at the Obama's shying away from both lifting "don't ask, don't tell" and intentionally side-stepping any gay-marriage political issues as a way of preventing a replay of the Clinton disaster.

On the other hand, the '94 parallel has helped fire up Republicans. This year's off-year GOP victories in New Jersey and Virginia are seen as parallel to the results in '93 that anticipated the '94 "Republican Revolution." Heck, like '94, a Democratic chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee is mired in ethics controversies (Dan Rostenkowski then, Charles Rangel now). Over the weekend, Newt Gingrich -- principal architect of that uprising -- even started talking about working with the RNC to put together a "Contract With America" 2.0.

Given these parallels, can Democrats stop history from repeating? Well, obviously, if the party gets health-care reform through this time, that's a legislative triumph instead of a failure. However, considering that average middle-class Americans won't necessarily see any benefits of the legislation for years to come, it will be a target that Republicans can focus on in both 2010 and 2012. The argument will be that Democrats passed a $1 trillion legislative bill -- but its benefits are slow to perceive -- at best. Toss in the $800 billion stimulus package -- and the fact that the unemployment rate will likely be above 10 percent for most of 2010 -- and a powerful narrative against all-Democratic Party rule could be made.

How will Democrats react?

Well, given how Obama has tried to do the opposite of what Clinton did, look for the president to start moving in a more centrist/right direction in anticipation of the '10 midterms -- rather than wait until the presidential re-elect (as Clinton did in '95-'96). In '94, it was the so-called "angry white males" turning out that voted in a Republican Congress for the first time in 40 years. Figure that the Obama political operation might be looking at the "Tea Party" movement as the 21st century version of that demographic. But Obama also knows that the share of the electorate identifying itself as independent has grown in the last several years. That group swung from going narrowly Obama last year to voting GOP by as much as 2-1 in the Jersey and Virginia elections. Obama has to figure out how to make more of those independents vote Democratic (or at least not become hostile to Democrats) next year.

And so, word leaked last week that the White House will focus on fiscal discipline and deficit reduction next year. Of course, this is a rather savvy idea in that the fiscal stimulus was back-loaded: Most of it hasn't been spent yet, meaning that the economy should be stimulated in '10 -- and, the White House hopes, will start creating jobs. The broader strategy will recognize that conservatives will be fired up regardless -- as they were in '94 -- so how does the White House minimize the damage? Obama's younger voters certainly didn't show up in this year's campaigns, partly explaining the drubbing Democrats received. And it won't be easy to tell liberals that spending has to be controlled. However, targeting independents by focusing on controlling the budget (at least rhetorically) may work -- or at least may keep them contented enough that they won't swing over to the GOP as they did this year.

Another area, where Obama may make at least some overtures in a centrist direction is in immigration. The administration is talking about reviving the comprehensive plan that Bush tried to get through. However, Obama has, arguably, been even tougher on immigration than his predecessor. The administration has already identified more than 100,000 immigrants -- of varied status -- who are already in the criminal justice system. The Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency is already moving against immigrants who are arrested and identified as already having criminal records. ICE then manages to place an indefinite hold on them while their criminal prosecution takes place. Once that is complete, the agency can begin deportation proceedings.

For those people adamantly against any "pathway to citizenship" plan to deal with illegal immigration, this program will not speak to them. However, for more middle-of-the-road voters, this will sound like a good reasonable idea -- and sound like the administration is working to keep the country safe from illegals that might commit violent offense.

Fiscal discipline. Working to keep the country safe (on the immigration front). These are a couple of areas where the Obama administration will try to put forward a more moderate type of governing after this year's Big Bang troika of spending, bailouts and company takeovers. (And keeping their fingers crossed that the stimulus works as it is supposed to.)

So, in game-planning so early for 2010, it's clear that the White House is worried, given the slowness of the economy to turn around. So, unlike '94, this Democratic administration appears to to be more proactive in the mid-term elections. One thing's is known, this will be an awfully long year until Election Day of 2010.

The sides have already been joined.

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