Washington Post blogger Greg Sargent makes a good point about parallels between the budget battle of 1995 and today. While conventional wisdom correctly holds that President Clinton trumped House Speaker Newt Gingrich in that fight, less attention has been paid to why that was the case—because Clinton pushed aside his strategy of triangulation and challenged the scope of Gingrich’s cuts. As evidence, Sargent unearths a Washington Post story from December 24, 1995, explaining Clinton’s triumph:
The only time Clinton’s ratings have improved substantially the past year as a result of his actions has been when he adopted a strategy of confrontation, not triangulation.
All through the summer and fall, Clinton’s favorability numbers stagnated in the 46 to 48 percentage point range. The Republican leadership in Congress was pushing ahead on the drive to balance the budget, including substantial reductions in projected Medicare spending. On Oct. 19, the House approved seemingly controversial changes in the Medicare program.
Through Nov. 1, however, Clinton’s numbers did not change.
Only when the battle lines were abruptly drawn—as the federal government was shut down Nov. 14 and Clinton began to turn Medicare into a polarized issue pitting himself and congressional Democrats against the Republican congressional majority—did his poll numbers begin to go up and stay up.
I elaborated on this point in a Nation article earlier this year, “Obama: Triangulation 2.0?” Here’s the key section:
During his first major confrontation with the GOP Congress—over the 1995 budget—Clinton ignored [Dick] Morris’s advice, according to [Paul] Begala, and refused to cut a deal with Gingrich, pledging to resist cuts to “Medicare, Medicaid, education and the environment.” Begala recounts an oft-told story in which Clinton, during a meeting with Gingrich, pointed at the Oval Office desk (named The Resolute, a present from Queen Victoria in 1880) and told the GOP leader, “If you want to pass your budget, you’re going to have to put somebody else in this chair.” Begala wants Obama to study that Clinton, not the Morris concoction. “It is that Gary Cooper type of leadership,” Begala says, “that people are now looking for in President Obama.”
Gingrich stubbornly plowed ahead with his spending cuts and forced a government shutdown, which backfired spectacularly and jolted Clinton’s sagging poll numbers upward…”What Obama should take from the Clinton experience is that you absolutely have to pick some early battles to stand strong on,” says Mike Lux, Clinton’s special assistant to the president for public liaison. “The Republicans will give us a hundred different opportunities, between bills they introduce and crazy shit they say…. The hardest decision will be picking which ones to focus on.” Former Clinton pollster Stan Greenberg says Obama “should be drawing red lines on things that are central to the purpose of his presidency and ought to be looking to get work done with the Republicans in other areas.”
In recent days, Obama has played the role of negotiator-in-chief, huddling with John Boehner and Harry Reid in order to avoid a government shutdown. Yet by failing to thematically challenge the GOP’s cuts or advance an alternative narrative on the economy, he’s made it easier for Boehner to keep demanding larger and larger spending cuts. Even if House Republicans are unhappy with a final agreement, any deal that is struck will include major concessions by Democrats.