When George W. Bush won re-election last year, he and his partisans believed that he had transcended normal politics and would not suffer the usual fate of second-term presidents — the loss of momentum, the paucity of new ideas, caretaker status in domestic affairs, crippling scandals, a divided ruling party. [IMGCAP(1)]
After all, Bush had demonstrated dazzling policy success in 2001 after winning a 36-day disputed election in which his party lost seats in both houses of Congress. The president won a sweeping tax cut at an earlier point in his presidency than Ronald Reagan had in 1981, then followed that up with a major education bill that passed by wide bipartisan margins. Then, his Republicans defied historical trends and gained seats in the first midterm, and two years later, his undisputed re-election victory was accompanied by real, not reverse, coattails.
Nine months into the Bush second term, however, it is clear that normal politics have re-established themselves, along with all the usual characteristics of second-term presidents. And that was true before Hurricane Katrina struck.
Public dissatisfaction with the president’s policies, both foreign and domestic, is high; public unhappiness with Congress is even sharper. The blizzard of policy accomplishments just before the August recess seemed to have no perceptible impact on public opinion or presidential approval. Spiking gas prices, bad news from Iraq, continuing public unease about their health and pension benefits, and scandal news on both the Valerie Plame and Jack Abramoff fronts all have trumped any good news of economic health or political and policy performance. The special election for a House seat in Ohio, in which the Republicans saved a seat in a safe GOP district by only a squeaker, has added to the unease of Republicans fearing a genuine “six-year itch” election in the midterms ahead.
So do we have the potential for a real electoral debacle for Republicans ahead? Can this coming election be like the disaster Democrats faced in 1994 — not a six-year election for Bill Clinton and his party, to be sure, but an equivalent “two-year itch” that continues to have Democrats reeling on Capitol Hill more than a decade later?
Sharp partisan tensions, a divided majority and a united opposition were three factors in the witches’ brew of difficulties that plagued Democrats as the 1994 elections approached. Another was scandal. The president’s problems were constant headline news, kept there by aggressive reporting and independent counsel investigations. In addition, the allegations raised just after the 1992 election about sexual harassment on the part of Republican Sen. Robert Packwood of Oregon garnered headlines throughout the next two years. Combined with the Tailhook scandal, in which Navy fliers and other military personnel groped women at conventions, there was a widespread sense that powerful figures in politics and government were abusing their privileges. The scandals themselves were bipartisan, but the impact was greater on the Democrats.
That attitude, a kind of populist revolt against elites, had been building at least since the pay raise for public officials in 1988-89. It was underscored by the emergence of Ross Perot, Ralph Nader and Pat Buchanan — populists all — in the 1992 elections. The combination of contempt for out-of-touch and pampered elites and unhappiness with policy failure and partisan conflict in government created a climate that led to a tidal wave of anti-incumbent and anti-ruling party sentiment.
There are clear parallels between 1993 and 2005. Bill Clinton stumbled out of the box in 1993 with his budget plan, confronting a wholly united minority party and a divided majority in Congress, denying him the early momentum that could have built political capital for the president. Bush stumbled out of the box in 2005 with his heavy focus on Social Security and confronted on that issue a united opposition and a skeptical public, denying him the early major victory that he achieved with tax cuts in 2001.
In 1993-94, even moderate Republicans who had worked with Democrats in previous Congresses had been radicalized by the majority Democrats’ high-handedness that dated back to the 1980s. They joined with then-Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) against key Clinton initiatives, refusing even to consider dealing or compromising. In 2005, many moderate Democrats, used to working with Republicans on issues such as trade and taxes, have become radicalized by their belief that the president has shafted them repeatedly in the past four years, on issues ranging from Medicare prescription drugs to homeland security, and that they have been mistreated far more by Republicans in the majority than Republicans were by them when they were on top.
Scandal, possibly big-time scandal, is beginning to rear its ugly head, with growing nervousness in the White House about independent prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald heading toward some blockbuster indictments, and with fears in Congress that Abramoff’s indictment could lead to metastasizing problems for lawmakers who worked with him. There are signs of nascent populism, driven by corporate miscreants like WorldCom, dislocations from globalism, reactions against Iraq, and reaction to scandal.
But there are just as many signals that the parallels will not be played out in the same way. The public dissatisfaction has not been building steadily for five years or more, and has not been exploited nearly as effectively by Democrats as it was in 1994 by Gingrich and his allies — in part because of a radically different attitude by the media. The press now displays a generally studied indifference to misbehavior by Members of Congress, compared to the early 1990s’ unremitting outrage at even a hint of a rumor of a misdeed.
Moreover, the partisan dynamic in the country is different, in ways that may provide a safety net under the GOP. The country’s divisions are more sharp than they were a decade ago, meaning that even as dissatisfaction with the status quo brews, Republicans are more inclined to rally behind their guy and their party — even if they themselves are unhappy.
Republicans in Congress are not united in the same way they were in Bush’s first term, but they also are not anywhere close to as undisciplined and indifferent to the president’s pleas as Democrats were in Clinton’s first two years. Democrats are more united now as a minority party than they have been at any point in our lifetimes, but not united enough to provide the votes to derail key Republican initiatives such as Medicare prescription drugs or the Central American Free Trade Agreement.
Then there is redistricting. In 1994, at least 100 of the 435 House seats were genuinely contestable going into election season. Now there are maybe 30 to 35, nearly evenly divided between the parties. In 1994, two-fifths of the 34 Senate seats up were at least on the watch list early on, with the majority Democrats clearly in trouble in eight to 10 of them. In 2005, perhaps six to eight of the Senate seats up are on the serious watch list, and at least as many of them belong to the Democrats as to the Republicans.
To be sure, the consensus among professional election-watchers on Election Eve 1994 was that Republicans would pick up a lot of seats but still fall short of majority status. Most of us misgauged the political weather, seeing a major force gale instead of the tidal wave that ensued, which turned most open seats the GOP’s way and caused some incumbents who seemed sure things to be losers. That could happen again. But it would take a multiplying parlay of bad things happening over the next year, at home and abroad, that seem individually plausible but collectively less likely.
Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.