A little history can be a dangerous thing, and in advance of Tuesday’s State of the Union Address by President Obama, political commentary will be focusing on Obama’s ability to replay 1995-96, when President Clinton rebounded from a similar rout in the midterm elections to more or less coast to re-election (while Clinton finished below 50% of the popular vote, it was only a “coming home” of Republicans in the campaign’s closing weeks that averted a more lopsided result; the outcome was not seriously in doubt).
Undoubtedly, Obama will have the opportunity to take advantage of many of the same dynamics that favored Clinton’s re-election, and he may succeed for those and other reasons. But history never repeats itself precisely. It is worthwhile to reflect on the many things that worked to Clinton’s benefit that Obama can’t count on:
1) The Democrats Still Hold The Senate: Clinton lost both Houses of Congress in the midterms, the third president of the past century to do so, the others being Truman in 1946 and Eisenhower in 1954. Both were re-elected; Truman used the GOP as a foil to confront, Eisenhower showed he could cooperate with the Democrats, and Clinton did some of both. Each was able in one sense or another to run on the same divided-government rationale that had helped them lose Congress in the first place.
Obama won’t have the same crisp contrast with Congress; the unpopular Harry Reid is still running the Senate, and sooner or later it will become impossible to conceal that fact. History suggests that this can matter: Obama’s the third President in the past century to lose only the House and keep the Senate in the midterms, and the other two – Taft and Hoover – both got slaughtered (Hoover carried just six states and drew 39.7% of the popular vote, Taft carried just two states, finished third in a three-way race and drew just 23.4% of the popular vote).
2) The GOP Candidate in 2012 Will Not Be A Leader of The GOP Congress: A hugely underrated factor in Clinton’s revival was the fact that his opponent was also one of the leaders of the Congressional Republicans across the table from him; in addition to Bob Dole’s other flaws as a candidate (his age, his status as an ideas-free compromise-driven moderate, his lack of executive experience), Dole couldn’t run a campaign independent of Newt Gingrich and the rest of the Congressional GOP, which not only tied him down on particular issues but also diminished him in the eyes of the public, as Clinton alone would negotiate with – and face down – a team of which Dole was only one representative. Whoever the GOP nominates in 2012 will have the ability a presidential candidate usually has to declare some level of independence from his or her Congressional party.
3) Obamacare passed; Hillarycare didn’t: As unpopular as the Clinton Administration’s health care plan was, it wasn’t a major issue in the 1996 campaign because it had failed and, with Republicans controlling both Houses of Congress, it wasn’t coming back. (Ditto Clinton’s destructive BTU tax). Not so Obamacare, which remains very much a live issue. There’s clearly a decisive majority supporting repeal right now in the House, and possibly a majority could be mustered in the Senate (certainly if the GOP gains more seats in 2012), but obviously not enough votes to override Obama’s veto. Unless Mitt Romney wins the nomination, the GOP will almost certainly run a presidential candidate who can and will mount a full-throated campaign in favor of repealing the bill. The same will be broadly true of a number of Obama’s big-spending, big-regulating initiatives.
4) The Economy: The unemployment rate is the most obvious of numerous economic indicators showing the U.S. economy in bad shape in 2011: unemployment, as low as 4.3% when voters elected the Democrats to control Congress in November 2006, was 6.5% when Obama was elected and 8.5% when he was inaugurated, and he expended much political capital arguing that his “stimulus” package would fix this with federal spending on “shovel-ready” projects; instead it peaked at 10.6% in January 2010, and remains above 9% a year later. These are very high numbers historically; since 1960, the unemployment rate has been above 6% on election day five times, and the only time the party in power wasn’t booted was 1984, when the 7.2% rate was the lowest it had been since before President Reagan took office and had plunged more than three points in two years. By contrast, the unemployment rate in 1996 was 5.4%, down from 7.4% when Bill Clinton was elected. If Obama can’t make the argument that Presidents Reagan and Clinton made – that they were not only making major headway on unemployment but in better shape than they were when elected (in Reagan’s case, the slight drop in unemployment was accompanied by an enormous drop in interest rates and inflation and a stock market boom) – he’ll face an electorate that is much more suspicious of entrusting him with the economy for four more years.
5) War: It is little remarked today, but a significant factor in Clinton’s loss of prestige in 1993-94 was as a result of his obvious unreadiness to be Commander-in-Chief and resulting series of fiascos in the deployment – or not – of American troops. The timeline of that period shows a straight line from Clinton’s indecsiveness in Somalia (the “Black Hawk Down” battle of Mogadishu) to the ignominious withdrawal of U.S. assistance from Haiti in the face of opposition armed mainly with machetes, to the genocide in Rwanda that followed when it was apparent that the U.S.-led “New World Order” would not have the will to back up its own rhetoric.
But to Clinton’s good fortune, other than the situation in the former Yugoslavia (the massacre at Srebrenica took place in July 1995), the overall global situation was unusually peaceful in 1995-96, as the world continued to reap the dividends of the end of the Cold War and associated boom in international trade. Even longstanding hotspots like Northern Ireland, Palestine and South Africa were making efforts at peace; it would be a few years before it was obvious to casual observers that the September 1993 Oslo accords were not a plausible foundation for peace. Most importantly, by 1996 there were few American troops in harm’s way. And the differences between Clinton and Dole on overall national security strategy were not dramatic. The election was fought almost entirely on domestic policy.
This will not be the case in 2012. America is still at war in Afghanistan, as well as maintaining a significant presence in brittle Iraq. It is possible that tensions with North Korea and the strategic rivalries with China and Russia could calm down, but the multifaceted issue of what do do about the threat of the political project of radical Islam remains a divisive issue, and the war in Afghanistan is specifically divisive within Obama’s party in a way that no foreign policy question was in 1996. It’s premature to predict how the national security issues will play out, but it’s hard to imagine them being as completely secondary as they were in 1996.
6) Money: In 1996, Bill Clinton was able to raise a massive warchest and start spending it very early, famously deploying direct TV ads in battleground states as early as July 1995. Obama, who is expected to raise a billion dollars for his re-election, will have no trouble doing the same, but ironically, the Republican nominee in 2012 may be helped at the front end by the chaos of the presidential field; it will be more difficult to hammer one front-runner with ads the way Clinton did to Bob Dolegingrich (as you’d have thought his name was from the ads). And it seems unlikely, in the current environment, that the opposition will simply run out of money the way Dole did between wrapping up the primaries and launching his general election campaign. I’ll be very surprised if the Republicans are as hobbled by a financial imbalance as they were in 1996.
7) Obama’s Not Clinton: This should be an obvious point. Obama has his strengths as a politician, notably his ability to deliver prepared speeches, but he lacks Clinton’s gifts as a retail politician, he’s prickly when questioned, and of course unlike Clinton – who learned triangulation as a way of regaining the governorship of Arkansas after his 1980 defeat – Obama has no real experience of moderate governance to fall back on. Clinton signed a longstanding conservative policy priority (welfare reform), and didn’t campaign against it; Obama’s most significant nod to the center so far was signing a temporary extension of the Bush income tax cuts, but he has promised to run against them.
8) No Oklahoma City: One of the fortuitous events that played into Clinton’s hands was the Oklahoma City bombing, and while Tim McVeigh was not in a conservative of any stripe, Clinton was able to slow the Right’s momentum by blaming Newt Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh for encouraging “anti-government” sentiment. Obama’s allies tried the same thing with the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, but their palpable desire to score political advantage from the tragedy, combined with the fact that the shooter turned out to be a left-leaning nutjob with no connection whatsoever to conservatives, fatally undermined that argument, as subsequent polls have shown that solid majorities don’t blame political debate for the shootings.
All of this is before we observe other features of the landscape not existing in 1996, like blogs and the Tea Party movement, as well as the possibility that John Boehner, having lived through 1995, will not repeat all of the same mistakes made by Newt Gingrich. As I said above, none of this is an argument that Obama is necessarily doomed or can’t repeat some of the aspects of Clinton’s revival plus some new tricks of his own. But treating 2012 as a straight replay of 1996 is not just bad punditry, it’s bad history.