The Magazine

Recovery November- And Beyond

The first 100 days of a new Republican House matter less than ensuring that the next two years are the last 100 weeks of the Obama presidency

Sep 20, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 01 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

This year’s election looks to be a repeat of 1994. The GOP is likely once again to win 50-plus House seats and thereby take control of that chamber. Republicans are on track to pick up something like the 8 Senate seats they won in 1994—if they fail to win control of the Senate, it will only be because they begin from such a low level (there are 41 GOP senators today, as compared with 44 in 1994). Indeed, we wouldn’t be surprised if the wave of November 2010 were even bigger than that of 1994.

Recovery November- And Beyond

So the historical pattern seems clear: An exhausted Bush administration ends in disarray. It’s followed by a young Democratic president who enters office as the bearer of liberal hopes and dreams. He has the support of comfortable congressional majorities. In short order, though, liberalism loses public support, conservatism shows why it’s the comeback kid of contemporary American politics, and Republicans get another chance.

And then? Are Republicans condemned to relive the disappointments of 1995-1996? No.

When the GOP took over in January 1995, Clinton was unpopular, but the country wasn’t in such bad shape. Unemployment was 5.6 percent, down over a percentage point in the previous year, during which GDP growth had been over 4 percent. The deficit was at about $200 billion and falling. And we were at peace.

Which meant that, by 1996, if Bill Clinton triangulated to the middle and allowed Republicans to overplay their hand, the conditions were in place for Clinton to run for reelection as a peace and prosperity president. GOP revolutionary fervor could be portrayed as off-putting, if not dangerous. Gingrich’s great accomplishment in 1994 had been in convincing the Perot voters of 1992 to return to a newly activist and reformist Republican party. But by 1996 Perotista sentiment was waning. Clinton had abandoned his health care plans and proclaimed the era of big government over. And the Republican nominee, Bob Dole, could be portrayed as the worst of both worlds—at once an embodiment of scary 1995 GOP congressional overreach and of the tired old GOP status quo (he had, after all, been Gerald Ford’s vice-presidential nominee).

Today, Obama’s “Recovery Summer” is a joke. The economy isn’t improving, the deficit is gargantuan, and economic circumstances are much scarier than in 1994. Because the economy is in such bad shape congressional Republicans will (paradoxically) have much more running room. They don’t have to do everything all at once. If they can simply check Obama, that will be a big initial accomplishment. 

A House measure repealing Obamacare may be blocked in the Senate or vetoed by the president, but House Republicans can still defund its implementation. The new congressional majority can also bury cap and trade, end stimuli and bailouts, reduce domestic discretionary spending, and stop tax increases. All of that would be a winning first act. 

Republicans will of course also have to be working on and testing some of the elements of a GOP agenda that fundamentally reforms and relimits the federal government. But stopping the bleeding comes first. This means the Republicans of 2011, compared with those of 1995, can be both less frantic about getting everything done in the first 100 days, and more resolute in seeing to it that by mid-2012 they have laid the groundwork for a serious and bold governing agenda for their presidential nominee.

Similarly, trying to ensure that Obama doesn’t fritter away success in Iraq, doesn’t undercut his own surge in Afghanistan, and doesn’t allow Iran to get nuclear weapons is already a hefty foreign policy agenda. In these cases all the GOP will be trying to do is to hold the president to his own statements of what core American interests are. Congressional Republicans can focus next year on this genuinely important task, and wait till 2012 to fully develop a neo-Reaganite national security strategy of their own.

Republicans have other advantages this time around. Obama will find it harder to pivot to the center than Clinton—who had, after all, run as a centrist in 1992. Clinton also had the great advantage that his health care proposal  hadn’t passed, and therefore could be jettisoned after the midterm election. Obama is stuck with Obamacare. And the potential GOP presidential field is more interesting and promising than that of 1996.

Recent Blog Posts

The Weekly Standard Archives

Browse 18 Years of the Weekly Standard

Old covers