Like the Ghost of Christmas Past, the specter of 1994 haunts the contemporary political scene. The Obama administration is desperate to learn from the mistakes of the Clintons in 1993 and 1994; the Republicans use those years to inspire them to remember how quickly the electoral landscape can change.
In the clearest example of this dynamic, the Obama White House let Congress take the lead on health care, a 180-degree shift from when Bill and Hillary Clinton spearheaded the process, a strategy that ended up backfiring spectacularly. Similarly, the administration is trying to stay away from certain controversial social issues so as to avoid a repeat of Clinton's gays-in-the-military debacle.
On the other hand, the '94 parallel has fired up Republicans. GOP victories in the New Jersey and Virginia gubernatorial races are seen as parallel to the results in '93 that foreshadowed the '94 "Republican Revolution." Just like in '94, a Democratic chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee is mired in ethics controversies (Dan Rostenkowski then, Charles Rangel now). Over the weekend, Newt Gingrich -- principal architect of that uprising -- even started talking about working with the RNC to put together a "Contract With America" 2.0.
Given these parallels, can Democrats stop history from repeating? If the party passes health care reform, that's quite a legislative triumph. However, the average middle class American won't see any benefits from the legislation anytime soon, and you can bet Republicans will argue in 2010 and 2012 that Democrats passed a $1 trillion bill with dubious benefit. Toss in the $800 billion stimulus package and the fact that the unemployment rate will likely remain above 10% for most of 2010, and a powerful narrative against all-Democratic Party rule could be made.
How will Democrats react?
Where Clinton waited until he ran for re-election to move toward the middle, look for President Obama to make the move in anticipation of the '10 midterms.
In '94, it was the so-called "angry white males" turning out that voted in a Republican Congress for the first time in 40 years. Figure that the Obama political operation might be looking at the "Tea Party" movement as the 21st century version of that demographic. But Obama also knows that the share of the electorate identifying itself as independent has grown in the last several years. That group swung from going narrowly Obama last year to voting GOP by as much as 2-1 in the Jersey and Virginia elections. Obama has to figure out how to make more of those independents vote Democratic next year.
Last week, the White House let it be known it plans to focus on fiscal discipline and deficit reduction next year. Of course, this is a rather savvy idea in that the fiscal stimulus was back-loaded: Most of it hasn't been spent yet, giving the White House hope that 2010 stimulus is baked in, even if it implements new discipline. It won't be easy to tell liberals that spending has to be controlled, but targeting independents by focusing on controlling the budget (at least rhetorically) may keep them from rushing into the arms of the GOP.
Immigration is another area where Obama can move toward the middle. Obama has been even tougher on immigration than his predecessor, and recently identified more than 100,000 illegal immigrants in the criminal justice system who could be targeted for deportation. Obama has toyed with bringing back Bush's "pathway to citizenship" plan for illegal immigration, which won't help him with the right. But for more middle-of-the-road voters, he may appear to be working toward keeping the country safe from illegals who commit crimes.
In game-planning so early for 2010, it's clear that the White House is worried. But unlike '94, this Democratic administration appears to to be more proactive in the mid-term elections. One thing is certain, a lot of surprises await in the year leading up to Election Day of 2010.