Lessons learned from ’96

2010 is beginning to look like 1996.

With voters heading to the polls in four months, Washington pundits are making comparisons to previous midterm elections. Some suggest the public’s anti-incumbent mood will produce a GOP tidal wave like in 1994. Others say Republicans are mobilizing against the president’s party like Democrats did in 2006.

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But electoral conditions more closely mirror the battle for Congress waged during President Bill Clinton’s reelection campaign.

In 1996, like today, the majority party was poised to lose seats in Congress. The national sweep that Republicans pulled off in 1994 meant a number of GOP freshmen represented seats that their party had no business holding. Illinois’s reliably Democratic 5th district had fallen to Republican Michael Flanagan, who decided to enter the ’94 campaign while playing darts at a Chicago tavern. True-blue Massachusetts saw two districts turn red in the GOP romp — sending Republicans Peter Blute and Peter Torkildsen to Washington. All three were swept out two years later when the GOP tide receded.

After convincing victories in both 2006 and 2008, congressional Democrats head into 2010 defending many districts in the short-shelf-life category. Losing seats is a political reality, if not a mathematical certainty.

Back in the summer of ’96, conventional wisdom held that Democrats were on the verge of recapturing congressional control. As columnist Tod Lindberg wrote at the time: “[I]n mid-June 1996, the people taking seriously the possibility of Democrats recapturing the House are, well, everybody ...”

It turned out Democrats didn’t win the majority that November, picking up less than half of the 20 seats they needed. So why were Washington insiders so convinced the GOP Congress was history?

Because the political landscape looked like fertile terrain for House Democrats, with GOP presidential nominee Bob Dole’s hapless campaign threatening to suppress Republican turnout; Speaker Newt Gingrich being highly unpopular among swing voters; and the GOP being forced to defend a number of controversial votes, from attempting to abolish the Education Department to gutting the school lunch program.

But the Republican Party wasn’t prepared to forfeit its newfound majority without a fight. So Republicans mapped out a strategy:, reminding voters what a Democratic majority would look like ­— what they called “The Radical Roster,” with Rep. John Conyers, Jr., (D-Mich.) as Judiciary Committee chairman; Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) heading the Ways and Means Committee; and then-Rep. David Bonior (D-Mich.) becoming majority leader. At the same time, the national party instructed individual candidates to run highly localized campaigns that disqualified their Democratic challengers on whatever issue resonated.

Democrats are taking a page from that playbook, painting a portrait of what a Republican Congress would mean: BP apologist Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) as chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee; Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) — who’s publicly pledged to lead an army of investigators to bedevil the Obama administration — as head of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee; and Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) — who compared the fiscal crisis of 2008 to “an ant” — serving as Speaker.

Back home, Democratic candidates are zeroing in on local issues, with recent special-election winner Rep. Mark Critz (Pa.) touting his cultural connection to Pennsylvania’s 12th district on hot-button issues.

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This fall, Democratic incumbents would be wise to follow another GOP tactic from 1996: pointing to their accomplishments on big issues. Fourteen years ago, congressional Republicans reminded their constituents that for all the turmoil created by the Clinton-Gingrich battle, the GOP delivered on its promise to pass welfare reform and a balanced budget. In 2010, Democrats can point to equally significant successes: reforming education, health insurance and Wall Street ­— while stabilizing the economy and jump-starting the nation’s efforts to create clean-energy jobs and reduce our dependence on foreign oil.

So while the Washington talkers — bolstered by champagne cork-poppers on the right, and handwringers on the left — make premature predictions about the end of the Democratic Congress this November, remember 1996 — and the gavel that wasn’t handed over.

Del Cecato is a partner at AKPD Message and Media, the political consulting firm founded by David Axelrod in 1985. He served as media adviser and admaker for Obama for America and Obama-Biden 2008.