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Election 2010: It’s 1994 all over again – and that's OK

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Smart v. Stupid

Election 2010: It’s 1994 all over again – and that's OK

Republicans party like its 1994. We look back at the smallest revolution in history.

  • President Bill Clinton
    Official White House photoPresident Bill Clinton

We’ve been here before. The year was 1994 and a reactionary electorate had just delivered a thumping to Bill Clinton’s party and presidency. Republicans won 54 House seats and eight Senate seats, taking control of the House for the first time in 40 years.

This followed the first two years of Clinton’s first term. His presidency was eventful for the divisiveness it brought. The “man from Hope” rolled into town with a pro-citizen agenda that included his first signature accomplishment, the Family and Medical Leave Act. The law was decried as devastating to business, but passed anyway and was signed into law in 1993. He then signed the Brady Bill, a waiting period for handgun purchases, and signed into law an expanded Earned Income Tax Credit that has helped thousands to escape poverty. Notably, civilization did not collapse.

Republicans had greeted him with whispered scandals and shouted claims of socialism and economic Armageddon. They proffered made up teapot-tempests like Travelgate, Whitewater and the supposed “murder” of suicide victim, Vince Foster. And they wailed about social issues they’d never actually done anything about like abortion and prayer in schools.

In an unprecedented decision, Clinton gave his wife a policy role on his next signature item – universal health care. He was then delivered his biggest and most famous defeat. “Clintoncare” – as it’s detractors named it – was a legislative disaster.

With the exception of Obama’s win on health care, the parallels are uncanny. One difference is that Obama is the first black president. But even that’s not so different; the friendly joke about Bill Clinton has always been that he was "America's first black president.” Beyond the other obvious similarities, Obama is also decried as a socialist. And the President endures another silly whisper campaign – that he’s “not even a Christian” and “not even an American.”

In Do Elections Matter? , conservative lawyer-lobbyist Ben Ginsberg attributed the 1994 Republican victory to four factors. The first was Clinton’s abject failure to convince the American public that health care reform was important (and the subsequent loss on this signature goal.) The second was Clinton’s attempt to end discrimination against gay service members – which ultimately led to deal-with-the-devil “Don’t ask, don’t tell.”

But Ginsberg also attributes the Republican takeover to that party’s ability to nationalize the election and to promote the idea that Democratic positions on civil rights, abortion, prayer in schools, and “armies of liberal activists” were tearing up our capitalist manifesto and replacing it with a socialist one.

Lastly, he attributes the “Republican Revolution” as it was called, to the Republican’s ability to control the discussion on talk radio and TV. What he means, but never says, is that Republicans were able to keep the water-cooler conversation about social issues and platitudes, rather than about substantive issues of governance.

Ginsberg, by the way, is no centrist. He provided legal counsel to both the Bush-Cheney Campaign and the Swift Boaters. His observations turn out to be some of the most revealing since Reagan strategist Lee Atwater offered a deathbed confession of how “The Gipper” had played the racist “Southern Strategy.”

This all sounds pretty familiar huh? So what happened next?

Newt Gingrich – architect of the Republican victory and they guy who took credit for writing the Contract with America – resigned in disgrace after an affair with a staffer. He’d told his wife that he wanted a divorce in the hospital where she was being treated for cancer. Today, Gingrich is relegated to the role of bomb thrower, making loud-mouthed and ridiculous statements in order to get occasional face time with the press. He also sells Gingrich Awards to small business owners by telling them they’ve won one. It’s a bait and switch scheme that ought to be illegal.

The 1994 election marked the end of the moderate group of Democrats and Republicans that had run the senate for fifty years, and changed the Senate’s nickname from “America’s Greatest Deliberative Body” into “The Place Where Legislation Goes to Die.”

Of the 54 new Republican House members, none still serves in Congress – most were defeated in the next election. The Senators were somewhat more successful. Of the eight, Olympia Snowe, John Kyle and Jim Inhofe still serve.

None of the Contract for America’s agenda items became law. For some, it was never intended because they served too well as talking points. For some it was because they were simply too idiotic. A few were probably good ideas, but the “Revolution” Congress didn’t want to be bound by them.

Hillary Clinton, after breaking the glass-ceiling of substance for presidential wives, went on to become a well-regarded Senator from New York, a highly successful secretary of state and a front-runner to be the next president.

Bill Clinton – despite surviving an impeachment attempt – went on to be one of our most popular and successful two-term presidents, winning a solid reelection. He gave the country record surpluses in his second term. He enjoys huge popularity today. He has spearheaded important international missions with his Clinton Initiative, and raised hundreds of millions of dollars for worthy causes. His greatest regret is not getting universal health care.

Despite everything that was lobbed at him, both C-Span and Sienna College Polls consistently rate him as one of the top 15 US presidents. In the future, he may well become America’s very first First Gentleman.

A lot can happen in the next few years. The Republicans can make an attempt to govern, rather than to obstruct. President Obama can cave, finishing out a one-term presidency with no new accomplishments. And right wing reactionaries might overplay their hand, just as they did later in 1994 when they shut down the government and engineered their own undoing.

Jimmy Zuma splits his time between Washington, D.C. and Tucson. He writes the online opinion journal, Smart v. Stupid. He spent 5 years in Tucson in the early ‘80s, when life was a little slower, swamp coolers were a little more plentiful, Tucson’s legendary music scene was in full bloom, and the prevailing work ethic was “don’t - unless you have to.”

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