The votes weren’t close to having all been tallied, and yet the scale of the rout was clear, when John Boehner began to drive a message as simple as it was essential: I am not Newt Gingrich. “This is not a time for celebration,” the soon-to-be Speaker of the House declared on Election Night—nor for claiming to have won a transformational mandate or arguing that Congress is now the center of the action. “We must remember, it’s the president who sets the agenda for our government,” he said. And though two days later he suggested that Barack Obama was in “denial” about the meaning of the midterms, Boehner offered that he and Obama “get along well,” that maybe they could hold a Merlot Meeting (rather than a Slurpee Summit). “I don’t want gridlock,” he insisted. “I don’t want squabbling.”
Mitch McConnell would never go that far, for fear that his pants would catch on fire. But on the same day, in a speech at the Heritage Foundation—the one in which he repeated his assertion that his main goal is to turf Obama out of office—he too made it clear that he had been pondering the lessons of the Gingrich Era. “By their own admission, leaders of the Republican Revolution of 1994 think their greatest mistake was overlooking the power of the veto,” McConnell said. “They gave the impression they were somehow in charge when they weren’t. And after President Clinton vetoed their bills, making it impossible for them to accomplish all their goals, they ended up being viewed as failures, sellouts, or both … So we have to be realistic about what we can and cannot achieve.”
That 1994 is much on the minds of Boehner and McConnell comes as no surprise—since for any politically sentient being, the analogy is inescapable. Most often, of course, the parallels are drawn to illustrate the challenge that Obama faces: Can he pull a Bill Clinton, tacking back to the center, triangulating his way to reelection? Yet as the two maximum Republicans are evidently aware, the historical antecedent raises an equally urgent question for the GOP: Can Boehner and McConnell avoid the sort of grievous errors that their forebears made, which opened the door to Clinton’s revival—and yet might do the same for Obama?
To answer that question, it helps first to note a salient difference between 1994 and 2010. Then as now, the Republican coalition was riven by deep tensions, but sixteen years ago these were mainly between the party’s insurgent caucus in the House and its staid one in the Senate, and were personified by the men who led each group. The first sign of trouble came within days of the election, when Gingrich set out his ambitions with unbridled grandiosity—“We have to simply, calmly, methodically reassert American civilization”—even as, just a few short blocks away, Bob Dole was smirking, Bob Dole–ishly, at the very idea that a revolution was at hand. “People are not looking for miracles,” he said.
Comparatively speaking, Boehner and McConnell are peas in the proverbial pod. Both are Establishmentarians to their core, who see politics and their role in promoting Republicanism in similar terms. Though both are more conservative than Dole, neither has a Gingrichian bone in his body. (This despite the fact that Boehner was once a lieutenant to Newt.) They are not firebrands or visionaries, but they are bone-deep partisans. For the past two years, they have demonstrated enormous discipline and skill in working side by side in the exercise of obstructionism. And for the next two, they will both be afflicted with the same headache: managing the tensions not between their caucuses but within them, as each is simultaneously energized and roiled by the infusion of a new crop of members more populist and hard-line than the guys who ostensibly command them.
The throbbing in the skull is likely to be sharpest and most frequent for Boehner. Of the possible 80 freshman Republicans entering the House in January, roughly half will be self-professed tea-partyers, most of them carried into office on the wings of extreme (and unfulfillable, at least for now) promises to reduce the size and scope of government. It’s this cadre to which Boehner was catering last week when he stated flatly that “we are going to repeal Obamacare”—an obvious impossibility given the remaining, if reduced, Democratic majority in the upper chamber and the president’s veto pen.
This kind of talk will only get Boehner so far with the tea-partyers, however. His allegiance to their cause will be tested early, thanks to Michele Bachmann, who announced that she intends to seek a post in her party’s leadership: that of GOP-conference chair. Leadership fights are never pretty, but this one may be especially charged, as the hot-eyed lady from Minnesota (and Tea Party Caucus founder) campaigns among her colleagues on the grounds that the new majority needs a genuine “constitutional conservative” in its top ranks—an argument containing the implicit suggestion that Boehner does not qualify as one.
For McConnell, the task of taming the tea-partyers (or, if you prefer, channeling their energies) in the Senate will be somewhat easier, if only because their numbers there will be so much smaller. With the defeat of Sharron Angle, Ken Buck, and Christine O’Donnell, only five new senators will arrive on Capitol Hill with the whiff of Earl Grey about them: Marco Rubio, Ron Johnson, Mike Lee, Pat Toomey, and, perhaps most portentously, Rand Paul.
Even so, the pressure on McConnell from his party’s anti-Establishment flank may in some ways be greater than that on Boehner—because of the presence of Jim DeMint. More than anyone, the junior senator from South Carolina is the animating spirit of the tea party. Having broken with long-standing tradition and encouraged primary challenges this year to sitting members of his own party, he has already made clear that he has no intention of backing away from his crusade for ideological purity. The morning after the election, he published an open letter in The Wall Street Journal that was a barely veiled threat to McConnell’s status as minority leader: “Tea-party Republicans were elected to go to Washington and save the country—not be co-opted by the club,” he wrote. “So put on your boxing gloves. The fight begins today.”
The fight DeMint is promising may prove bloody and protracted, but on any number of issues, it could erupt rather quickly. The tea-partyers campaigned on drastic spending cuts; Boehner and McConnell will be hard-pressed to deliver or even come down in favor of major reductions without risking alienating huge numbers of voters. In the likely event that a stalemate arises between the White House and Republicans over the budget, many tea-partyers are already champing at the bit for a government shutdown; but Boehner and McConnell, recalling how well that worked out for Gingrich and Dole, will be loath to let it happen. And then there’s the matter of the debt ceiling, which the country will run up against sometime early next year, with a congressional vote required to extend it. The tea-partyers will not come to that position without a horrendous hoedown. Getting them there—and thus averting a default, and with it the risk of another global financial crisis—will test Boehner and McConnell in ways that neither fully grasps today.
In all of this, Obama will find opportunities to exploit. If he and his team handle it adroitly, they stand a chance of forcing the Republican leaders into a series of devil’s choices between, on the one hand, making compromises that exacerbate intra-party tensions and, on the other, satisfying the appetites of the ascendant wing of the GOP by coming across as ideological extremists to the vast American middle. The degree of adroitness required will be enormous, to be sure. Unlike Clinton, Obama will not be blessed with a foe as prone to massive overreach—and to indiscipline, messianism, and just plain silliness—as Gingrich was in 1995. The president will need to be clever, flexible, patient, and tough in roughly equal measure.
Does Obama have the requisite supply of those skills? We are all about to find out. His performance last week was far from perfect. Unlike Clinton in 1994, who emerged from his and his party’s drubbing and announced the next day, “They [the voters] sent us a clear message—I got it,” Obama said nothing quite that blunt. Though he took responsibility for having failed to make more progress in reinvigorating the economy or changing the culture of Washington, he refused to concede that his specific policy choices had been repudiated. “I’m sympathetic to folks who looked at it and said this is looking like potential overreach” was his preferred, and self-servingly slippery, formulation.
What people are prone to forget, however, is that in fact it took Clinton the better part of a year to regain his footing. And though part of that process involved introspection and grand-scale strategic retooling, an even larger part was forged in reaction to the opposition and its follies. With the speed at which politics now moves, Obama won’t have as long as Clinton did to get his act together. But nor will Boehner and McConnell theirs—and the ground beneath their feet is even more unstable than it was back in the Newt old days.