It’s largely going to be gridlock. President Obama will veto what he doesn’t like. The Republican Congress will not have votes to override the vetoes. The GOP will not destroy itself “shutting down government as the Gingrich Congress did in 1995.” Republican congressional leaders will try tactfully to instruct the Tea Party members on political reality: If unemployment is still above 8.0 percent in 2012, either party might be in a position to take the White House. Below 8 percent, Mr. Obama probably gets re-elected.
As Newt Gingrich’s press secretary and close adviser from 1990 to 1997, I believe these conclusions are premised on a simplistic misreading of 1994-98. By this theory, Newt, believing he could persuade the public to follow him anywhere, overplayed his hand. Newt shut down the government over budget and Medicare disputes in the summer and winter of 1995. Instead , the public blamed Newt and the Republicans - while Bill Clinton crawled out of his terrible tidal hole on the backs of the GOP, and that was the end of the “Newt Revolution.”
After the 1994 election, neither Mr. Clinton and the Democrats nor Newt and the GOP had sufficient political power to accomplish much by themselves. Mr. Clinton couldn’t move a dogcart up Capitol Hill, while Newt didn’t have the 218 votes he needed to pass a House Health and Human Services appropriation - with controversial abortion language in it. It was the last vote before the August recess. Only at the last minute did Nancy Johnson, the liberal Republican congresswoman from Connecticut (and early supporter of Newt before he even was minority whip) manage to help Newt scrounge up the needed critical votes.
And so it went all summer and fall in 1995 - with Mr. Clinton deciding when to unleash part of the AFL-CIO’s $35-million political advertising account (in constant dollars, closer to $100 million today) to win various battles for public opinion. The GOP had no such political money available.
Regarding the notorious government shutdown: Technically, Republicans passed two bills that would have kept the government open for a few weeks - a process that is routinely followed at the end of budget periods. Had Mr. Clinton routinely signed them, the government would have stayed open until larger disputes had been resolved.
But it is more than fair to say that Mr. Clinton’s press secretary was much happier with the national impression that Newt “shut down” the government - and that Newt’s press secretary was less pleased.
Usually, it is the majority in the House that is seen to have the power of the purse strings. But Republican members chickened out and didn’t vote with their leadership because the GOP House leadership made a hash of our natural advantage.
However, that is not the end of the story of public opinion and political strategy in 1994-97. Just as Newt won the Health and Human Services vote based on shrewd public-opinion management in August, Mr. Clinton beat us over the shutdown adventure in the winter.
Again, in 1996, Mr. Clinton, Newt, GOP presidential nominee Bob Dole and the two parties fought over welfare reform. Newt won that one - Mr. Clinton caved and signed the tough GOP bill rather than his own squishy, non-reform “reform” bill. But Mr. Dole lost, too, as the GOP separated the Medicaid reform bill from the welfare bill - and Mr. Dole didn’t want to give Mr. Clinton a third chance to sign it. He had vetoed it twice. The battles are not always just between parties. After the bungled shutdown issue, the House GOP demanded a political victory from Newt - and they got it in that tough, divided welfare reform.
Likewise, Newt’s (and the GOP‘s) 1996-97 balanced-budget success - the first time the feds balanced the budget since before Vietnam - reflected the GOP’s ability to win the public opinion battles after the shutdown fiasco.
Now, fast-forward to 2011. Let’s assume the Republicans hold a majority in the House - say they net a pickup of 60 House seats and eight Senate seats, resulting in 49 Republicans, 51 Democrats.
Let’s assume between 55 percent and 64 percent of the public want to repeal Obamacare and the GOP brings it to the floor. Is it possible that there are 11 surviving Democratic senators (or those up for re-election in 2012 such as Dianne Feinstein) who might decide to cover their political backsides and vote for the repeal? Yup.
Also, in the deficit and tax fights that are likely to dominate the congressional year, neither Tea Party freshmen nor the GOP House nor the GOP Senate nor Mr. Obama nor his congressional parties alone can dominate the political process. How the case is presented to the public will determine which positions will feel the pressure from the public. Will Tea Partiers support congressmen across the board who actually cut entitlements, or will they flinch and penalize congressmen who have the guts to do so?
Either this is just the end of a big election that rolls back a few important mistakes, but basically changes little besides who gets the good parking spaces and whose staffers get to cash in for a few years. Or this is the beginning a great reformation that will take America back for liberty. It’s up to the people. We are so close. In 50 years in politics, I have never seen as large a percentage of the public self-motivated for reformation. For those of us who believe we are a providential country, now is the chance for the public to demonstrate it.
If the Tea Partiers and other liberty-lovers continue to engage Washington next year, then government shutdowns can work, vetoes can be overridden and public opinion can be rallied to help defeat Obamacare, higher taxes and deficits. If our public does not stay engaged, then the ever-organized left will force the GOP back into Washington-as-usual politics and our chance to reform our government will die. Let’s prove the Washington cynics in both parties wrong. As it has in the last few years, the Tea Party must continue to provide both the backbone and the vision for the Washington GOP.
Tony Blankley is the author of “American Grit: What It Will Take to Survive and Win in the 21st Century” (Regnery, 2009) and vice president of the Edelman public relations firm in Washington.
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