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TDS Co-Editor Stan Greenberg: Avoiding Another 1994

This item by Ed Kilgore was originally published on February 18, 2010.

When political observers start comparing Republican prospects in 2010 to those of 1994, they really ought to spend more time consulting people who were, you know, sort of there in 1994. TDS Co-Editor Stan Greenberg certainly was, and in a new piece for The New Republic, he provides some important advice on how Democrats can avoid a repeat performance later this year.

Greenberg sees a lot of the same warning signs: a president struggling to get his agenda enacted; Democratic divisions and discouragement; Republican intransigence and excitement. But he also notes there was a lot more going on in 1994 than Clinton's struggles on the health reform front, the subject of so many 1994-2010 comparisons:

At about this stage in the electoral cycle, in midwinter, we were feeling pretty satisfied with ourselves. The State of the Union address on January 25 hailed the previous year’s passage of the Clinton economic plan, nafta, and the Brady Bill. Health care reform was still supported by half the country. Clinton’s approval rating stood at 58 percent.

Then, it all went tragically and almost comically downhill. The State of the Union glow was blotted out by a media frenzy when a special prosecutor subpoenaed White House officials to testify before a grand jury on the Whitewater land deal--and the president was forced to defend his wife’s honor at a prime time press conference. The president’s job approval plummeted eight points--and support for health care dropped ten. Paula Jones kicked off May with her sexual harassment suit. And, by the June publication of Bob Woodward’s The Agenda--and his characterization of the Clinton White House in a word, “chaos”--the president’s approval had fallen to 45 percent.

Moreover, the health reform debacle was not the abiding reminder of Democratic disarray going into the 1994 elections: it was the omnibus crime bill.

With the Congressional Black Caucus rebelling against the bill’s death-penalty provisions and the conservative Democrats standing against its assault-weapons ban, the popular measure was defeated just before the August recess--only three months before the election. Reporters battled to capture their own astonishment. USA Today called it a “shocking” loss that “plunged” the White House to what could be “its worst political defeat.” In a hoarse voice, the president gathered reporters and upbraided his congressional opponents and vowed to “fight and fight and fight until we win.” After a frantic ten days of campaigning against Congress, followed by high-wire negotiations, he finally won the vote on a Sunday night.

Clinton’s approval fell to 39 percent after this fiasco--which voters interpreted as further evidence of Democratic incompetence and fractiousness. Congress’s approval plunged, and voters warmed to the Republicans, who had moved to about a four-point advantage in party sentiment.

That points up the single largest difference between 1994 and present circumstances, says Greenberg, is that Democratic weakness in the former year led directly to Republican strength. It's not so clear that's happening today:

Unlike the party of Newt Gingrich and Bob Dole, which gained standing with each battle with Bill Clinton, today’s Republican Party looks like a cult. During the 2008 campaign, the Republican Party fell to its lowest level in the history of our thermometers measuring the party’s popularity, and it has not improved its standing since Election Day. The Republicans’ widely held conviction that Obama has a hidden “socialist” agenda, and the ascendancy of Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck as ideological spokespeople, indelibly defines the party. At the same time, Tea Party candidates are contesting mainstream Republicans in primaries--dividing their base.

This provides a potential opening for Democrats if they get their act together and congressional Democrats behave responsibly. Even in 1994, says Greenberg, he urged the White House to attack the GOP's Contract With America as promising a return to unpopular Reagan policies. But Clinton, who was by then listening closely to Dick Morris, refused to do so. It doesn't have to be that way in 2010:

Put aside the rancor and gridlock and show a very different face. Take Paul Krugman’s advice and quickly pass a version of the Senate health care bill. That will raise presidential and congressional approval ratings, just as Clinton bucked up Democrats by passing nafta and tax increases for deficit reduction--neither of which were popular at the time.

They must put the Republicans on the defensive. Make them an offer they can’t refuse on bipartisan legislation they dare not oppose--jobs measures that help small businesses and energy-independence legislation. Then, force Republicans to cast tough and defining votes--on Wall Street bonuses and bailouts and limiting corporate spending on elections....

Most importantly, Democrats must explain this election’s stakes and frame the choice that voters face. This is something we failed to get right in 1994. In the summer before the election, we began to see some power in a populist narrative--“[A] president trying to make a better life for ordinary people against Republicans who favor the wealthy and hurt the middle class.” But we could not define this choice in a way that similarly helped congressional Democrats.

There's a lot more time in 2010 for Democrats to recover from their troubles, with the important exception that they need at least a little help from economic indicators. Democrats really didn't know what hit them in 1994. This time around, says Greenberg:

Democrats have already lived through their legislative nightmare. We have already had the benefit of Massachusetts to concentrate the mind. And, just as valuable, we have the lessons of history to guide our course.