Back to the future in Washington

Business Times - 01 Oct 2010

Back to the future in Washington

2010 is beginning to look like a replay of 1994 - with Obama reprising Bill Clinton's role, and Boehner doing a Gingrich


UNLESS you believe in miracles and/or don't trust American pollsters, you have no other choice but to assume that the Republican Party is going to take control of the US House of Representatives after the midterm elections in November and that the current House Minority Leader, Republican Representative John Boehner of Ohio, is going to be elected the next Speaker of the House.

Indeed, the results of the most recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll suggest that a mix of a public sense of gloom about the economy and rising discontent with President Barack Obama's management of the economy, coupled with Republican enthusiasm and Democratic despair, make it likely that the Republicans are going to make big gains in the midterm elections.

Moreover, with Republicans having a nine-point edge among 'likely voters', most pollsters are predicting that the Republicans could win more than the 40 House seats they need to retake the House.

The Democrats are also going to lose several seats in the Senate, but are probably going to maintain a slim majority there.

(The most recent good news for the Democrats has been the results of the polls conducted by the Los Angeles Times, which show Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer with an eight-point lead to keep her seat over her Republican challenger, former Hewlett-Packard chief executive Carly Fiorina.)

Being the Speaker of the US House of Representatives is a job that provides one with power and prestige. Not only is the Speaker second in the US presidential line of succession - after the vice-president and before the president of the US Senate - the Speaker also has the power to set the legislative agenda.

And when the opposition party wins control of the House from the sitting president's own party after midterm elections, the new Speaker is likely to assume that he has received a 'mandate' from the American voters to ensure that a sitting US president is not able to push his policy agenda.

That was exactly what happened in 1994, two years after an election of another young, charismatic and very popular Democratic president, when Republicans took back control of the House after gaining 54 more seats there.

The 1994 Republican victory came six weeks after Representative Newt Gingrich, a Republican from Georgia, issued the 'Contract With America' which laid out the planned Republican legislative agenda which reflected a set of very conservative principles.

So it was not surprising that after the Republican victory and the election of Mr Gingrich as the new Speaker of the House, Republican leaders insisted that, as members of a powerful conservative 'insurgency', they were going to 'roll back' the Big Government programmes promoted by then Democratic president Bill Clinton.

Many Republicans have been comparing this year's midterm elections to the historic 1994 vote and portraying themselves as the leaders of a second and even more powerful conservative insurgency which is driven by the Tea Party Movement.

They have promised that the new Republican-controlled House would embrace an ambitious legislative game-plan that would once again try to roll back the Big Government programmes of the current Democratic White House occupant.

Indeed, trying to create the sense that history was repeating itself, the House Republicans led by Mr Boehner released last week - six weeks before the 2010 midterm elections - their own version of the 1994 document titled 'A Pledge to America'.

Releasing it at a hardware store in Sterling, Virginia, a suburb of Washington, DC, Mr Boehner and his colleagues promised to take steps to repeal or 'defund' some of Mr Obama's major economic and social initiatives, including the Democratic healthcare reform bill and the economic stimulus package.

In short, a rollback of the entire Obama agenda on healthcare and taxes.

Instead, the Republicans are going to reduce government spending and cut taxes as part of an effort to re-energise the American economy. More specifically, the Republicans are calling for a two-year freeze in tax rates and a reduction in spending to 2008 levels.

And without going into specifics, Mr Boehner also promised to continue advancing the conservative social- cultural agenda favoured by most Republican candidates.

The historical parallels between the 1994 and the 2010 midterms are there. Then-president Clinton had passed his first budget without a single Republican vote, not unlike President Obama who could not win the support of Republicans for most of his programmes.

And Mr Gingrich and Company, not unlike Mr Boehner and his allies, attacked the Democrat in the White House for transforming America into a European-style socialist economy and for destroying America and Western civilisation.

Interestingly enough, some Democrats are welcoming the historical analogies. They hope to remind voters that Republicans under the Gingrich Speakership ended up spending most of their time and energy on shutting down the federal government (to force Mr Clinton to accede to their demands) and on long, expensive and somewhat repulsive (remember Monica Lewinsky?) investigations of the Clinton White House and the Clinton Cabinet.

And, ironically, while the Republicans led by Mr Gingrich had failed to impeach Mr Clinton, it was Mr Gingrich who was forced to resign from his position as Speaker after the results of the 1998 midterm elections made it clear Mr Gingrich and the Republican Party's attempt to remove Mr Clinton from office was widely unpopular among Americans.

Most significant from the Democratic perspective: President Clinton was re-elected for a second term.

But there was another side to the legislative gridlock that was created in Washington in the aftermath of the Republican 1994 victory.

Facing an obstructionist Republican majority, Mr Clinton and the Democrats did have to move to the political centre and adopt economic and social policies that ran contrary to the principles of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party.

Hence, Mr Clinton's promotion of an ambitious global trade liberalisation agenda and a historic reform of the welfare system would not have taken place without the critical support of the Republicans on Capitol Hill.

And there is no doubt that Republican opposition forced the Clinton White House and the Democrats to suspend their efforts to advance the more progressive programmes of healthcare reform and environmental protection.

Is it conceivable that a similar legislative gridlock would create the conditions for cooperation between the White House and the Republicans that would help move the legislative and policy agenda to the political centre, making it possible, for example, to reach a bipartisan agreement on ways to cut the federal deficits and to support a more activist trade liberalisation approach?

Or would the expected Republican victory produce even more political polarisation in Washington and energise the more conservative Republican lawmakers to launch a nasty assault against President Obama and make it impossible to achieve any compromise on the major policy issues?

Stay tuned.

Copyright © 2010 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved.


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