Party like it’s 1993?

In August, as a Republican sweep in Virginia and New Jersey was looking increasingly probable, I speculated in an Examiner column as to whether such a sweep might foreshadow success in 2010, as it did in 1994. The column is a bit heavy with the “on the one hand; on the other hand” motif, but might be worth dusting off in any event:

History often gives the appearance of repeating itself, and 2009 seems to be repeating 1993 with a vengeance. In both years, a talented young Democrat assumed the presidency due in large part to an economic downturn, thus ending a sustained period of Republican control
Both new presidents had deep roots in the radical left. Yet both had campaigned as a new breed of post-ideological candidate who would bring Americans together. Immediately upon taking office, however, both began pushing a left-liberal agenda.
In both cases, the centerpiece of that agenda was overhauling our health care system. The two presidents went about this task in different ways. In 1993, President Bill Clinton and his wife took control of the process; in 2009, President Barack Obama let Congress control it.
In both instances, though, the resulting proposals encountered fierce resistance. In 1993, opponents stopped the process in its tracks. The outcome in 2009 is not yet known, but it seems likely that, at a minimum, the president will have to abandon the “public option” so cherished by the Left.
In 2009, as in 1993, the new president lost popularity as voters came to realize they had not elected the pragmatic centrist they thought they were voting for. And the president’s party lost popularity too. In November 1993, Virginia elected a Republican governor (George Allen) for the first time in 12 years. In New Jersey, Republican Christie Todd Whitman defeated the Democratic incumbent.
This year, Republicans have an excellent chance to replicate these successes. In Virginia, a long Democratic winning streak — two gubernatorial races, two Senate races and last year’s presidential race — seems likely to end. Republican Robert McDonnell led Democrat Creigh Deeds in a recent Washington Post poll by 47 percent to 40 percent among registered voters and by 53 percent to 39 percent among likely voters. In New Jersey, incumbent Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine trails Republican challenger Chris Christie by a comparable margin.
These elections are more than 10 weeks away, so it’s too early to conclude that either Democrat will be defeated. But if both are, the sense of deja vu will feel complete.
Unfortunately for Republicans, however, the next set of elections that truly matter won’t occur until November 2010. Thus, the real question is: Will 2010 repeat 1994?
The question is of great moment because 1994 was a phenomenal year for Republicans. In the House, Republicans picked up 54 seats to gain control of the chamber for the first time in 40 years. In the Senate, Republicans gained eight seats and also took control.
Given the parallels between 1993 and 2009, what are the prospects for a repeat of 1994 in 2010? First, let’s consider the math. A pickup of 54 House seats next year would restore Republican control. A pickup of eight Senate seats would leave the Democrats in control but without a true governing margin, given Senate rules.
However, the Republicans have fewer opportunities to pick up seats than they did 16 years ago. Then, 22 Democratic-held seats were in play, compared to only 13 held by Republicans. Next year, both parties will be defending 18 seats.
Moreover, in 1994 Republicans knocked off only two Democratic incumbents; the other six gains came in states where the incumbent Democrat declined to seek re-election. But so far, only two incumbent Democrats have said they will step down in 2010 (appointees Roland Burris of Illinois and Ted Kaufman of Delaware).
The math, then, is significantly less promising for Republican Senate hopes than it was in 1994.
But the most important numbers next year will be economic ones. Here too, there are important differences between then and now.
Bill Clinton and Barack Obama were both elected thanks in large part to a bad economy. However, the recession that carried Clinton to victory was a mild one from which we largely had recovered by the time he took office. The current recession is quite severe and was still intense on Obama’s inauguration day.
In one sense, this makes the Democrats’ position especially perilous. If the economic situation a year from now is similar to the situation today, voters will probably be even angrier at the Democrats than they were in 1994.
On the other hand, our economic woes provide today’s Democrats an opportunity they lacked in 1994. Then, the economy had bounced back before Election Day, but the Democrats received little credit because the downturn had not been severe and the recovery was old news. This will not be the case if, next year at this time, the economy is perceived as well down the road to recovery.
In this respect, 2010 may end up resembling 1982 more than 1994. That year, the economy was in a recession comparable to the current one. Yet the Republicans took nothing like the hit the Democrats experienced 12 years later. The GOP lost 27 House seats (14 percent of their total, as compared to the 21 percent lost by the Democrats in 1994). In the Senate, where the Republicans benefited from favorable “math,” the balance did not change at all.
By November 2010, the economy will probably be noticeably further along toward recovery than it was in November 1982. Thus, the Democrats have reason to hope they will avoid not just “a 1994,” but also “a 1982.”
But elections are never just about numbers, economic or otherwise. Intangibles always play a role.
Thus, to compare 2010 to past cycles, we must ask whether the Republicans will find the kind of coherent message and strong leadership they profited from in 1994. In addition, will the fact that, unlike in 1994, Republicans controlled Congress until recently make voters reluctant to restore them to power? Finally, will Obama’s leftist agenda cause voters to cut him and his party less slack than voters cut Republicans in 1982?
In the end, there are too many “moving parts” to offer a confident prediction about an election that is more than a year away. But I wouldn’t bet that history will repeat itself next year with much exactitude. It rarely does.

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