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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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The showdown over the budget boosted Clinton’s numbers in early 1996. In January, his job approval ticked above 50 percent in the Gallup poll, where it would remain for the rest of his tenure. By the spring, he would open up a double-digit lead over Bob Dole, the presumptive Republican nominee. A late-breaking campaign finance scandal kept his 1996 total under 50 percent of the popular vote, but with Perot again mounting a third-party challenge, Clinton’s 49.2 amounted to a smashing personal victory. The triangulation strategy, however, shortened Clinton’s coattails; by differentiating himself from both congressional parties, he limited his ability to help congressional Democrats, who picked up only three seats in the House. Triangulation during Clinton’s second term also alienated the liberal wing of the Democratic coalition. Enough liberals peeled off in 2000 to enable Ralph Nader to play spoiler, as Vice President Al Gore fell just 537 votes short of victory.

Two presidents, two strategies, two victories. What to make of this? One possibility is that both approaches are timeless. If this is so, President Obama can go on the attack, as Truman did, or triangulate, as Clinton did, and win either way. But there’s more to the story.

Truman’s strategy made sense in the context of 1948. The last Gallup poll before Roosevelt’s death found FDR’s approval rating at 65 percent, astonishing for a president who had been in office 12 years. The fact that Roosevelt could break with tradition and win four presidential elections, carrying well over 50 percent of the popular vote every time, shows just how committed the country was to him. In 1948, people still vividly remembered the Great Depression, the failure of Herbert Hoover’s economic program, and the success of the New Deal. In recent years, analysts like Amity Shlaes have questioned how effective the New Deal policies actually were, but what matters for our purposes is what the public perceived—and the public believed the New Deal had worked. In an important sense, then, the New Deal coalition was still alive and well after World War II. Truman’s vacillation in the early days of his administration swept the Republicans into power in the midterms, but his reassertion of FDR-style liberalism helped revive the Roosevelt majority.

Matters were very different in 1994. The New Deal coalition had started to fracture in 1968, when the North-South split in the Democratic party handed the presidency to Richard Nixon. The disastrous candidacy of George McGovern—which more than anything represented the revival of Henry Wallace-style liberalism—and the failed presidency of Jimmy Carter had critically damaged the Democratic majority. This gave conservative Republicans, who had not really been in charge since the Coolidge administration in the mid-1920s, their first opportunity in generations. The success of the Reagan administration vindicated conservative Republicanism and peeled off huge portions of the old New Deal vote.

Bill Clinton seemed to have understood this when he first ran for president. Having been the chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council, he was prominent among those calling for a more moderate Democratic party. Yet the early Clinton administration did not govern in a centrist manner and was rebuked for it in the 1994 midterms. This defeat, moreover, unlike that in 1946, was not a blip. The Republicans triumphed in 1994 not because loyal Democrats uncharacteristically voted Republican, but because over the previous 12 years supporters of Reagan, Bush, and Perot had begun backing Republican candidates for Congress. 

Thus, 1946 and 1994 were very different midterm elections. In 1946, a still essentially liberal country voiced its frustration and exasperation with the painful readjustment to peacetime. Once balance was restored to the economy, the country was prepared to move back to the left. In 1994, the country was no longer liberal at its core, and the 1994 midterms were an ideological correction of the leftward bent of the early Clinton administration. Thus, the strategies of Truman and Clinton made sense in their respective political contexts. Each president made an accurate judgment of what his midterm rebuke meant in the broader scheme, and thus was able to respond in an effective way. 

It follows that the success or failure of President Obama’s response to a new Republican Congress will depend very much on whether he accurately reads the public’s mind. If he thinks the country is center-right, he will accommodate, as Clinton did. If he thinks it is center-left, he will “give ’em hell,” as Truman did.

So far, the president has telegraphed that he intends to fight. He has warned that a Republican victory would mean “hand-to-hand combat.” A comment the president made in a recent interview with the New York Times Magazine suggests he expects Republicans to move his way, not vice versa: 

It may be that regardless of what happens after this election, they feel more responsible .  .  . either because they didn’t do as well as they anticipated, and so the strategy of just saying no to everything and sitting on the sidelines and throwing bombs didn’t work for them, or they did reasonably well, in which case the American people are going to be looking to them to offer serious proposals and work with me in a serious way.

What is animating this sentiment? Part of the answer appears to be Obama’s belief that, deep down, the country is with him. He seems to think that Republicans—much like their forebears in 1946—have made political hay out of economic uncertainty, but that when it comes time to govern they will have to come to the table, his table, or suffer a rebuke in 2012.

Ever since the conservative wing of the Republican party triumphed in 1980, liberal analysts have been warning the GOP that it must moderate if it is to survive. The most recent iteration of this argument is the “emerging Democratic majority” theory, long promulgated by John Judis of the New Republic and Ruy Teixeira of the Center for American Progress, which has ties to the Obama administration. In essence, their theory holds that demographic, social, and economic changes will move the country back to the center-left. They saw the 2008 presidential election as the first of many victories for this new majority. 

The president’s apparent plan to fight the GOP makes sense in light of this theory. If he thinks his election really was a leftward realignment, it follows that he will hold the new line against the conservatives, who in this view cannot sustain their coalition into 2012.

If this is what President Obama is thinking, I believe he has bet wrong. There are two glaring problems with the notion that 2008 was a realigning election that brought forth a new Democratic majority, which has only to be revived in 2012. First, while the exit polls confirm that President Obama brought new voters into his coalition, they also show that his decisive advantage was the 17 percent of Bush 2004 voters who bolted the GOP coalition in 2008. If John McCain had managed to keep these Bush voters in his camp, he would have won the White House. What’s more, for all the new voters President Obama brought into the Democratic coalition, he lost almost as many Hillary Clinton primary voters, 15 percent of whom backed John McCain. Indeed, the exit polls indicate that, had Hillary Clinton been the nominee, she would have won by 11 points, while Obama won by 7 points.

Second, the idea of 2008 as a realigning election implicitly misframes the process by which voters shift their allegiances. The election of 1932, for instance, did not signify an electoral realignment. The realignment came during the New Deal as FDR used the powers of the federal government to shift the loyalties of the voting public. Similarly, the election of 1860 did not realign Northern politics; rather, victory in the Civil War did. Ditto the tumultuous period of 1893-1896: The Republicans went on to enjoy a 30-year majority not because William McKinley defeated William Jennings Bryan for president in 1896, but because the country turned an economic corner shortly thereafter for which the GOP could take credit. Finally, the Reagan Revolution lasted as long as it did because of the tremendous prosperity of the 1980s. In each instance, the president who pulled off the realignment did so by contrasting his record of successful governing with the failures of his opponents. 

This essential ingredient is missing for Obama in 2010. The president’s economic policy has broadly been judged not to have succeeded, and his health care law may be the most unpopular significant legislation in 100 years. Voters still look negatively upon the record of President George W. Bush, and they still would like to see President Obama succeed, but they do not believe the country has turned a corner. If it doesn’t recover before the 2012 election, President Obama will have a difficult time reconstituting his electoral coalition—while Republicans, if they play their cards right, will enjoy a terrific opportunity to consolidate their midterm gains.

Soon enough, we shall see what Obama does.

Jay Cost is a staff writer at The Weekly Standard.

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