Why the Next Democratic Era May Be Different

Let’s start by stipulating the obvious: A Republican, particularly one named Rudolph, could wind up winning next year’s presidential race, denying Democrats simultaneous control of the White House and Congress at least through 2012.

But let’s say that doesn’t happen. Let’s suppose that, for the first time since the Republican tidal wave of 1994, Democrats end up next year with total control of the federal government.

It’s not an unlikely prospect.

The House and the Senate, both of which the Democrats already hold, are locks to stay in their hands in 2008, with veteran Republican lawmakers racing for the exits and the G.O.P.’s House campaign committee four million dollars in the red.

And for now, poll after poll is showing every potential Democratic presidential nominee—even the “fatally flawed” Hillary Clinton, to use Karl Rove’s characterization—beating all of the top Republicans.

But the past tells us that this sort of hegemony is bad for the Democrats: the last two times they enjoyed such untrammeled dominance in Washington, the consequences for the party were catastrophic.

Jimmy Carter’s presidency, despite Democratic majorities in both houses, produced domestic paralysis, creating a “misery index” (the inflation and unemployment rates added together) so devastatingly high that the country turned to the previously unelectable Ronald Reagan in 1980, handing him control of the Senate while they were at it.

Next up was Bill Clinton, who inherited a supposedly permanent Democratic House (and 56 Senate seats too) when he came to the presidency in 1992. But just two years later, the G.O.P. picked up a stunning 52 House seats, winning control of that chamber for the first time in four decades. Republicans also won the Senate that year, and Mr. Clinton, his approval rating near where George W. Bush’s is now, seemed a certain one-termer.

This history explains why, at least in private, Republicans often suggest that their best weapon in reclaiming Congress will be the election of a Democratic president, particularly another one named Clinton, in 2008. The Democrats, the thinking goes, will then self-destruct, clearing the way for banner G.O.P. years in 2010 and 2012.

But such a reading ignores how much Congress, and in particular the House, has changed since the Republican takeover in 1994. Both Mr. Carter and Mr. Clinton were undercut by the stodgy old bulls in their party’s House ranks–the enormously powerful committee chairmen who had already outlasted numerous administrations and who felt no obligation to answer to anyone, the House Speaker and President of the United States included.

Consider the trajectory of Mr. Clinton’s presidency: He failed miserably in his first two years, even though he seemed ideally positioned to enact his agenda. It was only after his party was legislatively castrated in ’94 that Mr. Clinton staged his remarkable political revival, signing a new welfare law and a balanced budget agreement, finally delivering on some of the promises of his 1992 campaign.

What went wrong during those first two years? Certainly, Mr. Clinton and the inexperienced team he surrounded himself with deserve their share of the blame. But the arrogance and obstinacy of the permanent Democratic Congress certainly played a role as well. Committee chairmen held their gavels for life. The formal Democratic leadership—Speaker Tom Foley and Majority Leader Dick Gephardt—was almost a façade: The committee chairs had preceded them and would certainly outlast them. And they had little interest in taking orders from Mr. Clinton, the latest new president with an agenda that didn’t match theirs.

Mr. Clinton, to the detriment of his presidency, tried to win them over, presenting a massive, pork-packed “economic stimulus” package as one of his first acts as president. It was nothing more than a blatant, and reprehensibly pricey, effort to buy loyalty from Congressional Democrats– this after he’d campaigned against 12 years of reckless Republican deficit spending. Not surprisingly, the G.O.P. rallied to kill the pork bill with a Senate filibuster, and the defeat was costly for the new president: He looked weak and rudderless.

But the ’94 election cleaned out the Democratic stables, and a new type of majority emerged when the party finally won back the House last November. Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the top Democrat in the House since 2002, is the undisputed power in that body and committee chairmen—even the aging holdovers from the pre-’94 days—don’t enjoy anything approaching the autonomy they once did.

A Democratic president who assumes office in 2009 will be working with a cohesive House majority, one in which leadership is clear and concentrated. That’s a far cry from the recipe that has failed the party in the past. Why the Next Democratic Era May Be Different