The Magazine

Would He Rather Fight Than Switch?

If President Obama faces a Republican House, he will have two models to choose between: Harry Truman and Bill Clinton.

Nov 1, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 07 • By JAY COST
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In the end, Truman managed to hold the New Deal coalition together. His Republican opponent, New York governor Thomas Dewey, actually won a smaller share of the vote in 1948 than he had against FDR in 1944. Despite the impediments of third party challenges from Wallace and States’ Rights Democrat Strom Thurmond, Truman re-created the old alliance of union workers, urban ethnics, farmers, westerners, and most of the Solid South. Congressional Republicans were swept out of power and—with the exception of a brief rebound in the early 1950s—would not win a majority of House seats for another five decades.

Bill Clinton’s ascent to the presidency was about as unlikely as Harry Truman’s. Prior to the 1992 campaign, he had been known outside Arkansas primarily as the guy who bored delegates to tears with his keynote address to the 1988 Democratic National Convention. Personal scandals would surely have stopped his nomination had he faced a stronger primary field, but the most able Democrats had opposed the Gulf war, effectively disqualifying them from running against George H.W. Bush. Clinton also got a boost in the 1992 campaign from Ross Perot’s sharp critique of Bush, who had the misfortune of governing during a mild cyclical recession. Add to that a weak campaign by the incumbent Republican, including a disastrous party convention in Houston, and the obvious conclusion is that everything that could have broken Clinton’s way did. Yet he pulled in only 43 percent of the vote. President Bush won 37 percent, which was about where his job approval numbers were, but the remainder of the anti-Bush vote went to Perot, who, though he carried not a single state, did better than any third party candidate since Teddy Roosevelt in 1912.

Once in office, Clinton proceeded to misread his electoral mandate, completely and utterly. As Michael Barone put it in the Almanac of American Politics: “Bill Clinton was elected in 1992 because he campaigned as a New Democrat, one who would use a combination of market and government mechanisms to reform public sector institutions that weren’t working.” This included promises to reinvent government, cut middle class taxes, balance the budget, and “end welfare as we know it.” But, upon taking office, Clinton governed as an old-style, New Deal Democrat: He hiked domestic spending, increased taxes rather than reduced them, backed a pork-filled anti-crime bill and stiff gun control measures, and pushed a government takeover of health care. All of this put his congressional majority in jeopardy. Not a single Republican supported his 1993 budget proposal, and because it passed by just one vote in both chambers, the GOP could credibly claim that every Democrat who supported the measure had cast a decisive vote. The Democrats lost effective control of the House after a minor procedural vote on the crime bill went against the leadership, and soon thereafter the Clinton health care proposal crashed and burned. Despite the fact that the United States enjoyed peace and prosperity, the Democratic party was soundly rebuked at the polls in 1994, losing a net of 54 House seats, 8 Senate seats, and control of both chambers, which had not happened since 1952. 

Yet the events of 1995-96 would offer the first glimpse of a quality for which both Bill and Hillary Clinton have become famous: They are at their best when they are running from behind. In the spring of 1995, Clinton had to defend his relevance and suffer the ignominy of being turned down by two of the three major networks when he wanted them to televise a prime-time address. Nevertheless, he implemented an ingenious strategy that was actually consistent with his 1992 campaign: He would triangulate, placing himself not just between conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats, but above the partisan divide to represent the interests of all Americans. He agreed to cut taxes and spending, reform welfare, implement a line-item veto provision, and move toward a balanced budget. He took his stand against the Republicans on the scope of the cuts in government spending. When Republicans proposed a budget that went too far in Clinton’s judgment, including reductions in the growth of Medicare spending, Clinton vetoed it. This shut down the government. Ultimately, the public would blame congressional Republicans, as Clinton insisted he wanted to balance the budget as much as anybody, but not at the expense of senior citizens.

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