Jan. 10 (Bloomberg) — Newt Gingrich’s return to prominence may not last, but it should stir memories of the last time he was a major figure on the national scene. Indeed, revisiting the events of 1996 allows us to imagine a different scenario for this election year than most observers expect.
Back in 1995, as in 2011, powerful Republican leaders (including Gingrich, then speaker of the House) faced a Democratic president who had been weakened by a stinging midterm defeat. They blocked the president’s initiatives, and tried to use their power in Congress to bring him down. By the end of 1995, gridlock had reached a new high with the government shutdown and the failure of budget talks between the White House and Congress. Sound familiar?
Most experts expected things to get even worse in 1996. Then, a few things happened to change that outcome. Bill Clinton, the Democratic president, regained his footing, sharpened his message for re-election and was buoyed by improving economic news. Congress grew less popular as voters became dissatisfied with the lack of progress and obstructionism. There were mounting signs of another tidal wave election, this one to sweep out the new Republican members who had been seated in the previous election. As 1996 unfolded, the party lost enthusiasm for its lackluster emerging nominee, Bob Dole.
The result: Gingrich and fellow Republican leaders in Congress decided to work with Clinton to pass a raft of important legislation. These included a balanced budget deal, an extension of health-care coverage (the Kennedy-Kassebaum Act) and sweeping welfare reform.
Congressional Republicans decided that working with the Democratic White House to improve the standing of Congress with the public was more important than continuing to obstruct the president’s agenda as a way to ensure he served only one term.
Could the 2012 election year shape up the same way? Could the most do-nothing, gridlocked Congress in memory change direction, and could its members decide to save their own political hides? Might congressional Republican leaders choose to produce results by cooperating with President Barack Obama, even if it undercuts the party’s front-runner for the presidential nomination, Mitt Romney?
The odds of this happening this year are long. Yet, in recent weeks, the first signs of a reversal have emerged.
The payroll-tax standoff that the president won before Christmas was the first indication that such a dynamic could take shape. Although Obama was applauded for his resolve and persuasion, that achievement was equally evidence that the laws of political gravity are finally taking hold: Congressional Republicans cannot defy the public’s demands for action on the economy indefinitely without suffering political costs.
The Republican lawmakers who were blocking the extension of the payroll-tax cut — in an extreme attempt to weaken Obama’s re-election by foiling his initiatives to strengthen the economy — couldn’t withstand the damage to their own prospects. In the end, they decided to do what was in their own political interests — and Obama’s — rather than what benefited Romney.
In the weeks that have followed, there have been further developments that could result in a turnaround in congressional attitudes toward working with the president. Obama’s approval rating has risen, strengthening his political hand, while the public’s perception of Congress remains at an all-time low.
Better economic news — such as the recent report of a reduction in unemployment — reinforces this dynamic.
Finally, the growing sense that Romney will be the tepidly accepted nominee by default — much as Dole was in 1996 — is forcing Republicans to reconsider what price they are prepared to pay to advance his political interests.
True, the partnership of Clinton, Gingrich and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott in 1996 had some features that are absent now: most prominently, the peculiar role of a top presidential adviser who provided counsel to both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue (Dick Morris, who served as an important go- between for Clinton and Lott); Gingrich’s ability to make his rank-and-file accept bipartisan bargains, a skill the current speaker, John Boehner, doesn’t possess; and the lack of an aggressive, far-right grass-roots movement like today’s Tea Party that threatens Republicans who want to work with the president.
In addition, the twin impacts of reapportionment and redistricting (and the breakdown of Senate seats up for election in 2012) mean that there are fewer Republicans at risk this year from a “sweep-the-bums-out” wave than there were in 1996. That may allow the party’s lawmakers to withstand more heat from the public as they keep their presidential nominee afloat.
Even so, Obama has some assets that Clinton lacked in 1996. First, the White House’s “We Can’t Wait” campaign has more effectively made congressional obstruction a central election issue than was the case in early 1996.
Second, Democrats have the majority in one of the two legislative chambers. As a result, they don’t need Senate Republican leaders to help achieve progress, they just need seven nervous Republican senators to line up with Majority Leader Harry Reid on a few crucial votes.
Third, congressional Republicans today have far less of a personal investment in the Romney candidacy than they did in that of their old friend and colleague, Dole, a Senate leader from Kansas.
The president’s recent rhetoric and actions — the crisper stump speech, the recess appointment of Richard Cordray to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau — don’t endanger bipartisan cooperation. In fact, they make progress more likely because they show Republicans that the president can score points without them, if need be. The Republicans’ political dilemma grows more acute each time Obama wins a confrontation.
Certainly, hard-core Republicans in the House and those with safe seats in the Senate are likely to block progress in 2012 and spend political capital to advance the Romney cause. But the president’s higher standing, his sharper election-year instincts, his communications strategy and signs of an improving economy will give his congressional opponents second thoughts about the slash-and-burn strategy they have followed for the past three years.
Just as they caved to Obama on the payroll-tax extension to save their own skins, they could find it useful to hand him wins in 2012 on energy policy, fiscal policy and job-creation initiatives as a way of enhancing their own standing with angry voters.
Think it can’t happen? Ask Gingrich.
(Ron Klain, a former chief of staff to Vice President Joe Biden and a senior adviser to President Barack Obama on the Recovery Act, is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a senior executive with a private investment firm. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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