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Disaster Relief

How to avoid a repeat of 1994.

When I studied the results of my national surveys of public opinion one week before the Massachusetts special election, I felt a wave of panic--a strangely familiar feeling. The results showed that the public’s hope had given way to disillusionment; that Democrats had come to embody political gridlock and big spending; that conservatives were energized and Democrats demoralized; that the country was in revolt against elites. It was beginning to look like, gulp, 1994 all over again.

During that last electoral debacle, I was conducting surveys for President Bill Clinton, asking some of the same questions and getting the same answers. After one survey in May 1994, I wrote President Clinton, “The administration, the Democrats in Congress and the party face a disaster in November unless we move urgently to change the mood of the country.” Even then, I couldn’t imagine that Democrats would exacerbate the disaster, ending their decades of hegemony in the House.

President Obama and the Democratic Party need to urgently revisit 1994. By paying close attention to the lessons of that year--lessons about presidential leadership, the consequences of congressional melodrama, the need for an economic narrative and for a defining choice in the election--the worst can be avoided.

At about this stage in the electoral cycle, in midwinter, we were feeling pretty satisfied with ourselves. The State of the Union address on January 25 hailed the previous year’s passage of the Clinton economic plan, nafta, and the Brady Bill. Health care reform was still supported by half the country. Clinton’s approval rating stood at 58 percent.

Then, it all went tragically and almost comically downhill. The State of the Union glow was blotted out by a media frenzy when a special prosecutor subpoenaed White House officials to testify before a grand jury on the Whitewater land deal--and the president was forced to defend his wife’s honor at a prime time press conference. The president’s job approval plummeted eight points--and support for health care dropped ten. Paula Jones kicked off May with her sexual harassment suit. And, by the June publication of Bob Woodward’s The Agenda--and his characterization of the Clinton White House in a word, “chaos”--the president’s approval had fallen to 45 percent.

The Democrats had depended on being viewed more favorably than the Republicans--and that had been true in every election since 1962, as well as when President Clinton took office. But, during Clinton’s first term, congressional Republicans came to understand that opposing the president bolstered their own numbers. The battle over the president’s economic plan left the parties at near parity. During the spring of 1994, Republicans alarmingly began rating higher than us.

By mid-June, I was so distressed about the diverging graph lines depicting the Republican and Democratic numbers that I convened a meeting of prominent political scientists to get their reactions. The political scientists were bemused by my worries about disaster and predicted a loss of 15 to 18 seats, if the president’s approval held at 50 percent--where it stood at the time.

Alas, nobody anticipated the next act. There was the inglorious defeat of the president’s crime bill by his own divided party in the House. With the Congressional Black Caucus rebelling against the bill’s death-penalty provisions and the conservative Democrats standing against its assault-weapons ban, the popular measure was defeated just before the August recess--only three months before the election. Reporters battled to capture their own astonishment. USA Today called it a “shocking” loss that “plunged” the White House to what could be “its worst political defeat.” In a hoarse voice, the president gathered reporters and upbraided his congressional opponents and vowed to “fight and fight and fight until we win.” After a frantic ten days of campaigning against Congress, followed by high-wire negotiations, he finally won the vote on a Sunday night.

Clinton’s approval fell to 39 percent after this fiasco--which voters interpreted as further evidence of Democratic incompetence and fractiousness. Congress’s approval plunged, and voters warmed to the Republicans, who had moved to about a four-point advantage in party sentiment.

Six weeks before the election, on September 26, Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell announced that Congress would no longer try to pass Clinton’s signature health care reform initiative. A stubborn 41 percent of Americans still supported the plan, but the president never provided his interpretation of the battle or any hope for future progress.

On Election Day, Democrats lost 54 seats in the House and eight in the Senate; they lost eleven governorships and 16 state legislative chambers. Republicans took control of both houses of Congress for the first time since 1952; they controlled a plurality of state legislatures for the first time in 40 years. I recall the pained meeting in the cabinet room of the West Wing--with the president seething, upset about the many friends who were defeated, and angry with his team and himself. When I saw my pre-Massachusetts poll, you can be sure I relived that meeting.

Will this election be that ghastly? For all the problems of this last year, President Obama’s approval rating is at 48 percent--and has been stable since November. Assuming that the economy makes gains over the next eight months and Congress does not make a spectacle of itself, Obama’s approval could easily be ten points higher than Clinton’s was. That would pull us back from a landslide, at least in the theoretical models of the political scientists.

To be sure, the six-month battle in the House and Senate for the passage of health care reform has shattered the Democrats’ image and taken their popularity to just above that of the Republicans (and, more important, taken the Democratic Congress’s to just below). While serious reform has been tantalizingly close, the public views the process as rife with Democratic division, incompetence, big spending, and taxed health care benefits.

But, through it all, the Republicans have remained amazingly unredeemed. Unlike the party of Newt Gingrich and Bob Dole, which gained standing with each battle with Bill Clinton, today’s Republican Party looks like a cult. During the 2008 campaign, the Republican Party fell to its lowest level in the history of our thermometers measuring the party’s popularity, and it has not improved its standing since Election Day. The Republicans’ widely held conviction that Obama has a hidden “socialist” agenda, and the ascendancy of Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck as ideological spokespeople, indelibly defines the party. At the same time, Tea Party candidates are contesting mainstream Republicans in primaries--dividing their base.

If I were writing a memo to the Democratic leaders, this is where I would begin. Put aside the rancor and gridlock and show a very different face. Take Paul Krugman’s advice and quickly pass a version of the Senate health care bill. That will raise presidential and congressional approval ratings, just as Clinton bucked up Democrats by passing nafta and tax increases for deficit reduction--neither of which were popular at the time.

They must put the Republicans on the defensive. Make them an offer they can’t refuse on bipartisan legislation they dare not oppose--jobs measures that help small businesses and energy-independence legislation. Then, force Republicans to cast tough and defining votes--on Wall Street bonuses and bailouts and limiting corporate spending on elections.

The president must, for extended periods, turn the spotlight away from Congress and show he is making progress. He must use the space to deliver his economic narrative. Unemployment is the inescapable subject of this election. The president has to offer a framework that explains the grave difficulties people are experiencing, how they happened, and his plan for fixing them. Even if the economy improves, voters will not credit him, unless he presses his case. Swing voters have resisted his assertions in the State of the Union that “[the Recovery Act] has helped save jobs,” and, “after two years of recession, the economy is growing again.” The voters we studied turned their dial meters sharply down upon hearing them. Unless voters palpably feel such improvements in their own lives, these types of assertions will turn them off.

Most importantly, Democrats must explain this election’s stakes and frame the choice that voters face. This is something we failed to get right in 1994. In the summer before the election, we began to see some power in a populist narrative--“[A] president trying to make a better life for ordinary people against Republicans who favor the wealthy and hurt the middle class.” But we could not define this choice in a way that similarly helped congressional Democrats.

That changed when Newt Gingrich announced his Contract with America. I wrote to the president in October that my research showed the Contract to be “a gift that should now form the centerpiece of Democratic communication.” Our choice became: “The Democrats want to go forward and address the problems of ordinary people. The Republicans in Congress want to go back to the Reagan policies of tax cuts for the wealthy, exploding deficits, and cuts in Medicare.” We could have tarred the Republicans as avatars of the status quo, if we had reminded voters of the “Reagan policies” that Republicans wanted to continue.

Unfortunately, we could not convince the president of this. Unknown to us at the time, he was taking advice from Dick Morris, who told him that Reagan and the Contract were popular. The president insisted on educating voters on our shared accomplishments, which made the election a referendum on the Congress, not a choice.

Fortunately, this election we are blessed with better timing. Democrats have already lived through their legislative nightmare. We have already had the benefit of Massachusetts to concentrate the mind. And, just as valuable, we have the lessons of history to guide our course.

Stanley B. Greenberg was a polling adviser to President Clinton and the author of Dispatches from the War Room: In the Trenches with Five Extraordinary Leaders.

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