Understandably, countless parallels have been drawn between Barack Obama’s push for health care reform and the effort undertaken by Bill Clinton 15 years ago.
But when it comes to gauging the political impact of the legislation that Obama now seems poised to sign early next year, the more apt comparison is to the budget that Clinton forced through Congress in the summer of 1993.
After all, Clinton’s health care push stalled and died without a bill clearing a single congressional committee. There were no results for voters to judge – just failure for them to condemn (with Republicans, of course, egging them on). Obama and the Democrats, by contrast, are actually on the verge of enacting 2,000 pages or so of changes to the health care system. People will – eventually – feel an impact from this, a variable that never materialized in the Clinton years.
This is why Clinton’s budget – which proved an unshakeable albatross for Democrats in the 1994 midterms, only to morph into an unadulterated political plus as the decade progressed – makes a better point of reference.
As with health care now, the budget represented Clinton’s signature first-year effort – one that passed the House by a 218-216 count and the Senate on the strength of Vice President Al Gore’s tie-breaking vote. In its first pass through the House this year, health care passed on a 220-215 vote, and it cleared the Senate last week without a single vote to spare.
And Clinton’s budget attracted just as much Republican support as health care has this year – which is to say, none at all. In fact, Republicans in 1993 were in an almost identical political position – locked out of the White House for the first time in 12 years and facing imposing Democratic majorities in the House and Senate. Then, as now, they opted to play the obstructionist role.
In Clinton’s budget, Republicans saw a particularly ripe target for the 1994 midterms. The new president had campaigned as a “New Democrat,” a business-friendly moderate who’d pulled his party away from its tax-and-spend legacy. But his budget, which sought to tame the runway budget deficits of the late ’80s and early ’90s, raised taxes on upper-income earners. “The biggest tax increase in the history of the world!” is how Republicans portrayed it, to great effect.
When Gore cast his decisive vote in August ’93, public sentiment had moved decidedly against the budget. Months of Republican attacks (and critiques from members of his own party, some of whom thought the package did too much and others who believed it did too little) had convinced the masses that Clinton’s was simply a mess.
“I believe that hundreds of thousands of Americans will lose their jobs because of this tax bill,” Phil Gramm, then a Republican senator with 1996 presidential aspirations, said at the time. “Three-and-one-half years from now, my guess is that the President will be one of them.”
Republicans are now talking the same way about “ObamaCare,” which, just like Clinton’s budget, has dropped in popularity as the congressional process has played out.
“Politically, it’s a big problem for [Democrats],” Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican Leader, said on Sunday. “They all kind of joined hands and went off the cliff together. Every single Democrat provided the vote that past it in the Senate.”
McConnell and other Republicans are now promising to make health care a centerpiece issue in next fall’s midterms – the same way that just about every Republican Senate challenger in 1994 reminded voters that his or her opponent had cast the tie-breaking vote for Clinton’s budget (a claim that was technically true, since one more Democratic defection would have prevented Gore from casting the 51st vote for it).
The Clinton experience suggests this isn’t a bad strategy for the G.O.P. – for 2010 only. But after that, they’ll begin to pay a price for their uniform opposition.
The Democrats who sided with Clinton in ’93 tried to tell their constituents that they’d cast principled votes that would benefit the country in the long term. But the public was in no mood to hear it. They had already judged Clinton a failure and, to them, claims about the supposed benefits of his ’93 budget were abstract; the economy barely seemed better than it had been when they’d elected him.
The story of Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky, who had been elected from a Republican-leaning district in suburban Philadelphia in 1992, is illustrative of this. After agonizing until the very end of the final House vote on the budget, she finally relented to White House pressure and voted for it, essentially providing the tie-breaking vote. As she did, Republicans in the chamber chanted, “Bye-bye, Marjorie!” And they were right: Margolies-Mezvinsky, despite her best efforts to persuade her constituents, lost her seat in ’94.
Many other Democrats, of course, lost their seats in the G.O.P. revolution of ’94 – including some who had tried to appease their constituents by voting against the budget. There were many reasons for the G.O.P. tide, but the budget was a big part of it; it helped Republicans convince the public that Clinton had betrayed the kind of change he’d promised in his ’92 campaign – that he really was the taxer-and-spender he’d said he wasn’t.
But then something funny happened: The long-term benefits that Clinton and the Democrats had promised came through. Deficits began to shrink. The markets found new confidence in the government and the U.S. economy. And the roaring ’90s took off. None of the dire Republican predictions about lost jobs and recessions and depressions came true. Not even close.
By 1996, Clinton was able to run for re-election on the strength of what the ’93 budget had delivered – and to taunt the Republicans (including his opponent, Bob Dole) for having been so afraid of it. The 379 electoral votes he won that year remain the most for any Democrat since L.B.J. in 1964.
Expect something similar to happen with health care. The benefits won’t appear immediately. They’ll actually be phased in over a period of years (too many years, probably). So the G.O.P. – just like with Clinton’s budget – will have a field day in next year’s midterms claiming that Obama and the Democrats just bankrupted the country for a bill that hasn’t done any good. Democrats probably won’t have much luck fighting back. Principled congressmen and senators who cast principled votes will probably lose their seats in 2010.
But then, as the bill is implemented in the years that follow, voters will realize the same thing they did in 1995 and 1996 – that the G.O.P.’s hysteria was just that. The overheated rhetoric that has marked this year’s health care fight will come to look almost comically misguided. And Republicans, once again, will have found themselves on the wrong side of history.