It's common these days — and, to some Democrats, comforting — to summon hazy memories of 1994, when, as happened again on Tuesday, their party lost the House of Representatives to the Republicans. That wasn't so bad, was it? After all, it led to a period of productive bipartisan deal-making — and then, two years later, Bill Clinton won reelection by a comfortable margin.
But that is a prettied-up version of history. Before President Clinton and then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich were able to compromise on taxes, spending cuts and welfare reform, they collided spectacularly — in a bitter budget confrontation that led to two federal government shutdowns in 1995. Just as Gingrich and his Republicans had to test the limits of their newly won power, so too will the new majority of Speaker-to-be John A. Boehner look for at least one tough confrontation with Obama, both to test the president's resilience and to keep promises to their "tea party" constituents. One almost certain clash: a vote to repeal Obama's healthcare law, even though Obama is virtually certain to veto it.
And Obama's challenge over the next two years looks more difficult than Clinton's, in several ways.
Partly, this is because Barack Obama is no Bill Clinton. When the Democrats lost in 1994, Clinton's reaction the next day was: "They sent us a clear message. I got it."
You didn't hear words like that from Obama on Wednesday. He blamed his party's reverses on the slow pace of economic recovery, on the "ugly mess" of deal-making in Congress and on the White House bubble that makes him look isolated. The only specific failing the president acknowledged on his part was his failure to keep the business community on his side. Where Clinton accepted — grudgingly — that his party had overreached and needed to move toward the center, Obama insisted that everything his administration had done was right, even if some of it was misunderstood.
That's a defensible argument, but it sounds out of touch the day after so many voters abandoned his party. And it reflects an important difference between Obama and Clinton: Clinton is a centrist from Arkansas who spent much of his career striking deals with conservatives. Obama is a liberal from Chicago who has succeeded, so far, mostly by appealing to his party's base.
It's long been said that Obama, as a black man running for national office, trained himself never to appear angry. Judging from his news conference, he also likes to avoid public displays of frustration, contrition and reflection. "This is something that I think every president needs to go through," he said, noting that Clinton and Ronald Reagan suffered reverses in their second years in office too. "This is a growth process." That may have been a first in American politics: an electoral disaster as therapy.
Obama was right about one big factor: He has a terrible recession weighing him down. If unemployment were at 5%, he said, his party would have done much better. He's right, but there's no prospect of unemployment returning to 5% for at least four years, so Democrats will have to hope voters don't hold them to that standard when they vote again in 2012.
Obama will also have to find a way to work with Boehner, who is no Gingrich. He's not as brilliant, but he's not nearly as accident-prone either. Gingrich was a messianic insurgent who believed his ideas would conquer the nation; Boehner is a Chamber of Commerce conservative who believes in raising money, counting votes and staying doggedly on message.
That makes him more dangerous to Obama than Gingrich was to Clinton, because he's less likely to self-destruct. Boehner has already said that he's studied the lessons of the Gingrich era; he says he won't even threaten to shut down the federal government in next year's budget battle, let alone actually do it. His message on Wednesday was bland and, except for a promise to try to repeal the healthcare law, almost content-free. "The new majority here in Congress will be the voice of the American people," he said. "This is a time for us to roll up our sleeves and go to work on the people's priorities: creating jobs, cutting spending and reforming the way Congress does its business."
The biggest problem facing Boehner and his Senate colleague, Mitch McConnell, is a potential civil war in their caucuses once newly empowered tea party candidates arrive to begin purifying Gomorrah-on-the-Potomac. The insurgents' floor leader, Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina, issued their first orders Wednesday in a fiery column in the Wall Street Journal. "Tea party Republicans were elected to go to Washington and save the country, not be co-opted by the club," DeMint wrote. "So put on your boxing gloves."
The only real fun Democrats can look forward to in the next few months is the battle between DeMint and his followers and the old-line GOP leadership. But don't bet against Boehner. He may not have charisma, but he knows how to manage a caucus.
Obama's opportunity may lie in making a clearer pivot to long-term fiscal responsibility, endorsing ideas that come from his deficit commission next month and challenging the Republicans — now that they're in charge in the House — to say what they would cut instead. That's basically how Clinton succeeded in 1996. But it won't be easy getting there.