It's time for Obama to pull a Clinton

Republicans are already celebrating like it's 1994. The president should make them pay like it's 1995

Published October 10, 2010 3:01PM (EDT)

President Obama, and former President Bill Clinton, in October 1994.
President Obama, and former President Bill Clinton, in October 1994.

For House Republicans, it looks like 1994 all over again. A president is beleaguered, the economy is lifeless. A speaker-in-waiting has taken center stage. He has unveiled a statement of principles. A big win, giving the GOP control of the House, seems inevitable.

1994 looms large for the president, too. The economy has improved under his watch, but not enough, and certainly not in time, to sway an anxious electorate. He has scored major legislative victories, but early enough in his term that voters have forgotten about them. The Republicans have succeeded in convincing large numbers of Americans that he is somehow strange, "not one of us." A big loss, giving the GOP control of the House, seems inevitable.

But if the Republicans want to make this year 1994 redux, Barack Obama needs to make it 1995, when a rebuked Democratic president rebounded by depicting himself as protector-in-chief -- protector of average Americans against the depredations of a band of radicals out to make middle-class lives less secure and less safe. What Obama’s got going for him, just like what Bill Clinton had going for him, is an opposition whose loudest voices are not only extreme but extremely quotable, and a majority of the electorate that does not trust extremists.

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When the Democrats faced the voters in November 1994, the seeds of the stunning economic recovery of the mid- to late 1990s had been planted -- declining interest rates, deficit reduction, and a technological revolution about to transform the private sector -- but the sluggish economy Bill Clinton had inherited from his Republican predecessor had yet to fully awake. He had won important legislative fights early on -- passing the Family and Medical Leave Act, his budget, and NAFTA, all in 1993 -- but barely two months before Election Day his signature initiative, healthcare reform, had ended in spectacular failure. As commander in chief he seemed inept: Starting out with a military skeptical of him because of his draft history, he lost further credibility because of his fumbling attempt to lift the military’s exclusion of gays from service and because of what came to be known as "Black Hawk Down," the disastrous firefight against a Mogadishu warlord that effectively ended the American mission in Somalia that George H.W. Bush had begun. What’s more, he seemed culturally out of step with the nation: Although he’d run for office promising attention to the needs of the broad middle class, the issue that dominated his first week in office -- gays in the military -- addressed the needs of a small and still much-despised minority. He got Congress to pass two pieces of gun-control legislation. And then there was the haircut on Air Force One as the plane sat on the tarmac at LAX: Providing the cut was a high-priced "stylist" (not "barber") from Beverly Hills with a single name (Christophe -- and French, at that!) -- all amplified by the bogus charge that the trim had tied up airport traffic for an hour. Voters got the impression that this was not the Man from Hope, but the Man from Hollywood.

Led by Newt Gingrich, the GOP smelled blood. Energized by their thwarting of the healthcare initiative, they fully funded a hundred contests across the country. "Historically, you'd have about 30 competitive races," says Scott Reed, then executive director of the Republican National Committee. "We had three times that number." Positioning themselves as the party of fresh thinking, Republicans prepared a document, the Contract With America, that contained 10 concrete right-of-center legislative proposals, including a balanced-budget amendment, term limits and welfare reform, but no mention of red-meat social issues like abortion and homosexuality. The absence was intentional. "The Democrats played totally into our hands," says Joe Gaylord, a key political advisor to Newt Gingrich at the time, "because they decided that this was some radical document that would change the face of the world. We'd say, ‘A balanced budget is radical? Cutting taxes is radical?’ They fell into a huge trap."

Bill Clinton seemed helpless as Democratic candidates asked him to stay away from their districts. Normally as politically savvy a political animal as existed anywhere on earth, he seemed clueless, too, reduced to heaping lame ridicule on what he called the Contract on America. Although expecting losses, the White House was oblivious to the extent of the Democrats’ peril. "We knew that the Senate might be in trouble," says Leon Panetta, then White House chief of staff. "I don't think that we ever expected that we'd lose the House, because we had a pretty good margin. Late afternoon on Election Day, George Stephanopoulos came in and said, ‘This is going to be a real landslide.’"

And a landslide it was: On Nov. 8, 1994, the Republicans gained 54 seats in the House -- knocking off even Tom Foley, the Democratic speaker from Washington -- and eight in the Senate to take control of both chambers. Twelve Democratic governor's mansions turned Republican, with liberal lion Mario Cuomo losing in New York to a little-known state legislator from Peekskill, and media star Ann Richards giving way in the Lone Star State to a baseball-team owner with the middle initial W.

The president was stunned. Five months later, in April, he still seemed forlorn. "The president is relevant here," he pleaded.

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There is, to say the least, a resemblance between Bill Clinton’s plight 16 years ago and Barack Obama’s today. Bank bailouts and the stimulus prevented another depression, but even if the economy is comparatively better than it might have been, it is still objectively bad. ("It could be worse" is not exactly a winning campaign slogan.) With virtually no Republican help he’s notched hefty legislative accomplishments -- not only the stimulus, but financial reform and healthcare reform, all three too timid to satisfy his liberal base, but none of them meaningless, either. However, those victories seem old news as Election Day approaches, and the benefits brought about by the healthcare bill are either only now beginning to take effect or won’t kick in for years. He is, if not an uncertain commander in chief, certainly an unlucky one, extricating combat forces from one inconclusive inherited conflict as he adds fighters to another. And the Republicans have succeeded in convincing many -- if not a majority of the public, then at least a large minority -- that he is not really an American, that he is odd, weird, dangerous. Of course, the color of his skin makes the job easy. It’s not necessary to call him a n----r; "Kenyan Muslim" makes the point effectively enough.

Led by John Boehner, the GOP once more smells blood, sensing that its stark refusal to cooperate with the president on any matter of importance is about to pay off. In conscious mimicry of Gingrich’s Contract, the House leadership has released its "Pledge to America." The Pledge lacks the Contract’s succinct list of specifics; rhetorically, at least, it is an even more ambitious manifesto, casting the GOP as the force to renew American freedom: "With this document, we pledge to dedicate ourselves to the task of reconnecting our highest aspirations to the permanent truths of our founding ..." With the good luck of the Supreme Court’s recent Citizens United decision -- allowing unlimited corporate spending on political advertising, and we know which party is favored by people running and owning big corporations -- the GOP is poised to capture at least the 39 seats needed for a change in leadership of the House, if not the 10 needed to control the Senate.

With 1994's example crowding their rearview mirror, today’s president and his party, unlike those in 1994, see clearly to the crash ahead. Nevertheless, they seem unable to avoid it. Democratic candidates in marginal districts are running from their president, elected so decisively only two years ago. The inspiring oratory and confident charisma of candidate Obama are gone. The rhetoric of President Obama -- after the Republicans "drove the car into the ditch, made it as difficult as possible for us to pull it back, now they want the keys back" -- now seems forced, off-key. The public that couldn’t get enough of him during his first few months in office seems to have stopped listening to him. Will Barack Obama, next year, be pleading for his relevance?

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After the slapdown of 1994, Bill Clinton seemed a zombie president -- moving around, talking, living in the White House, but powerless and pathetic. Yet only two years later he coasted to reelection. The turnabout began when Timothy McVeigh, only hours after the president insisted on his relevance, set off his bomb at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. Bill Clinton’s speech four days later at the Oklahoma State Fair Arena displayed what may be the man’s most admirable and valuable gift: empathy. It’s not a joke, it’s not a put-on, he really does "feel your pain," and people know it. The speech reintroduced him as a strong, compassionate leader to a country that had come to view him as weak and elitist. And it played into what would be the theme of his politics for the rest of the year.

Clinton and his advisors didn’t make an explicit equation of the militia movement, with which McVeigh sympathized, to the conservative rule of Congress, but neither did they ignore the opportunity to make a point. In May at Michigan State Clinton told graduates "there is nothing patriotic about hating your country, or pretending that you can love your country but despise your government." "It wasn't consciously trying to tie conservative extremism in the House to the militia groups," says then-White House press secretary Mike McCurry. "But it was very clearly a statement about extreme rhetoric that declares government is not the solution, it's the problem ... Our rhetoric was subliminally a way to push Gingrich and the Republicans more and more to the extreme side." And so Clinton & co. worked tirelessly to convince the public that the Republican agenda, which sounded like common sense in the Contract, was in fact a plan to shove the country to the fringe. "Over and over again," recalls McCurry, "we used the words radical and extreme interchangeably to discuss the priorities of the new Republican leadership in Congress." On Feb. 24 Clinton spoke of "radical right-wing measures that are coming out of these House committees." June 23: The Republican budget proposal "is still too extreme." Aug. 2: A Republican bill featured "extreme anti-environment provisions"; Republicans favored "extreme budget cuts." Oct. 19: Republicans should "turn back from passing extreme measures."

That the strategy worked was testament as much to the personality of Newt Gingrich as to Clinton’s political skill and the essentially moderate temper of the country. In 1994 Gingrich seemed to much of the public new, smart and thoughtful. In 1995 he wore out his welcome. For one thing, he was (and is) simply unappealing on television, in contrast to the warmly telegenic Clinton. What’s more, he couldn’t stop talking. As Paul Begala recalls, "He was like a Thomas Nast cartoon of a right-wing thug: Overweight, bombastic and given to hysterical rants. He blamed liberals for Susan Smith -- the woman in South Carolina who murdered her children. Woody Allen left his wife for his wife's adopted daughter -- and that was the Democrats' fault." In policy matters he overreached, going beyond the discrete proposals of the Contract to call for the abolition of the Department of Education and threatening to throw the United States Treasury into default if he didn’t get his way in the ongoing budget negotiations.

As those negotiations proceeded through the summer, Clinton staked his position on the defense of four issues: Medicare, Medicaid, education and the environment. Medicare was Exhibit A in the case Clinton was making; he hammered Gingrich with it at every turn. When the Republicans proposed $270 billion in Medicare cuts over five years and tax cuts totaling $240 billion over the same period, the near 1-to-1 correspondence handed Bill a ready-made argument that the Republicans wanted to use the program so dear to the hearts of seniors "as a piggybank to fund huge tax cuts for people who don't really need them." When the government shut down in November, and CNN broadcast pictures of padlocked national parks and unsent Social Security checks, the public blamed Gingrich. The following year, Clinton & co. tied Gingrich around the neck of the Republican nominee, Bob Dole, himself no fan of the vainglorious speaker. Clinton barely broke a sweat as he breezed to reelection, just two years after his political obituary had been written.

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It took the loss of Congress to shake Clinton into branding his opponents radicals and extremists. Barack Obama, fortunate that he has 1994's cautionary tale as guidance, needs to start his effort to do the same right now.

It’s not as though he lacks material to work with. Sharron Angle, the Tea Party Republican running for Harry Reid’s Senate seat in Nevada, derided on-camera health insurance plans that cover exotic extras -- like maternity and what her air quotes indicate she considers the imaginary condition called "autism." Joe Miller, her counterpart in Alaska, has suggested that Social Security, Medicare and unemployment insurance are unconstitutional. Christine O’Donnell, running in Delaware, had admitted to witchcraft and has campaigned against masturbation. (There goes the always crucial wanker vote.) Rand Paul, in Kentucky, called it un-American to criticize BP for the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, declined to give support to the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and doesn’t like child-labor laws "because sometimes in really poor families, kids just have to pitch in."

If the Tea Party candidates are too implausible as actual makers of policy to scare moderate voters, how about the House Republicans’ leading budget wonk, Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, who would head the budget committee in a Republican Congress? Earlier this year Ryan, with the blessing of his leadership, issued a long-range budget plan that envisions privatization of Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security -- a trifecta of perfect issues for the Democrats. If Ryan is too obscure a villain, John Boehner, the speaker-wannabe, should fit the bill. But if even Boehner’s profile among the public is still too low and his persona too bland to make him this year’s Newt Gingrich, Democrats can do something about that. They can make his face -- specifically his angry, contorted face as he delivered his "Hell no!" rant on the floor of the House just prior to the chamber’s passage of healthcare reform -- the face of the Republican Party in 2010.

If they are bold, Obama & co. can spring on the GOP the trap the Democrats walked into 16 years ago, the trap they should have sprung months ago: They can make their proposals seem like common sense and their opponents’ strident objections seem emblematic of ideology divorced from the lives of real people. The commercials write themselves: Narrator, over photos of children in doctors’ offices: "The president says we can provide insurance for children who are already sick" (avoiding, one prays, the wonky phrase "preexisting conditions"). Cut to Boehner shouting, "Hell no, we can’t!" How about "We can give hardworking American families a choice of medical plans." "Hell no, we can’t!" (Think how ominous Boehner’s contorted face will look as the clip is presented in the standard black-and-white, slow-motion video used in political commercials to show opponents.) All along, Obama has sat back as his opponents have labeled his healthcare plan, not to mention everything else he’s supported, "radical" and "socialist." Democrats don’t have to reinvent the wheel to find a retort; it can be cribbed right out of the 1994 Republican playbook: "Giving people jobs is radical? Making sure insurance companies can’t cut off benefits if you get cancer is socialist?" The Democrats should make "Hell no we can’t!" as familiar as "Fifteen minutes can save you 15 percent on car insurance."

The Pledge is nothing to be afraid of. It contains not the Contract’s list of 10 simple proposals -- all presented in 861 words -- but rather platitudes, generalities and impossible arithmetic, wrapped up in a 48-page e-booklet that features pictures of congressmen, cowboys and butchers. It is inconsequential and will be forgotten well before Election Day. More daunting is the Republicans’ financial advantage. Bill Clinton was able to mount an aggressive advertising campaign in 1995 thanks to massive soft-money donations to the Democratic National Committee. While the back-to-the-future rules after Citizens United favor the GOP, surely there must be one billionaire in the country who isn’t crying into his beer over the president’s Marxist scheme to bleed him dry by adding 3 percent to his tax bill, and will put his money where his mouth is. (How about it, Warren Buffett?)

Last week the New York Times reported that the president’s advisors were weighing whether to tie the Tea Party to the GOP in the campaign. Given the refusal by senior Republican officeholders to disown or even occasionally contradict the wild accusations made by stalwarts of the Tea Party, some of whom are carrying the party’s standard into November, should this be a difficult decision? Is the country at large really comfortable with the fact that one of our two main political parties is getting into bed with people who depict the president of the United States as Hitler and a witch doctor? Whether out of cowardice or cunning, elected Republicans have grabbed the Tea Party tiger by its tail. Obama should -- and should be able to -- make them pay for that decision.

Americans respect a winner in the White House -- they didn’t agree with Reagan policies, but they did love the guy. Obama scored a big win on healthcare; instead of failing to mention it, he and the rest of his party should trumpet the achievement -- and explain that those who favor the bill’s repeal are the real radicals. Americans like a leader who is strong, even if he sometimes muscles his way to the wrong conclusion. When Barack Obama does his on-the-one-hand-on-the-other-hand routine about "The mosque at ground zero," his strength oozes away. The 30 percent of Republicans who think he’s a Muslim will remain apoplectic if he is forthright in defense of the structure, but there are independents and moderates who still think the Constitution is about more than the right to own guns, and go without health insurance.

If Democrats at risk of political death don’t want to nationalize this election, the president of the United States and leader of the party should overrule them. That’s what strong leaders do. Besides, it’s too late to denationalize it. Like it or not, Republicans have made Barack Obama the issue in this election. With less than a month until the balloting, it may also be too late, this time, for Barack Obama to do what Bill Clinton did in 1995: convince the public that he is the protector of the middle class and his rivals its assailant. But if he’s going down, why not go down fighting? In other words, he should practice politics, without apology and without shame. And who better to emulate for the shameless practice of politics than the Big Dog himself?

Or if the last Democratic president is an uncomfortable role model for our current chief executive, he should channel an earlier one. Against all odds Harry Truman kept his job in 1948 by attacking a "do-nothing Congress." Give ‘em hell, Barack!

By Michael Takiff

Michael Takiff is the author of "A Complicated Man: The Life of Bill Clinton as Told by Those Who Know Him," recently published by Yale University Press. Visit his website at and follow him on Twitter @Michael Takiff

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