Party Like It’s 1997

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President Obama will probably get his budget deal with Republicans through the Congress, though not without considerable protestation from the Democratic left. But it’s worth remembering that the idea of Congressional liberals being outraged over a Democratic president’s fiscal footsie with the GOP is far from unprecedented. This week’s storyline bears a similar resemblance to Bill Clinton’s 1997 budget deal with the Gingrich Republicans. Check out this May 21, 1997 New York Times story:

House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) yesterday denounced the balanced budget and tax cut agreement President Clinton negotiated with congressional Republican leaders, as the House, working well into this morning, faced a much tougher than anticipated task of passing the measure.

Using rhetoric that recalled past budget battles between GOP White Houses and congressional Democrats, Gephardt said the agreement favored the wealthy with its tax cuts, did not spend enough on children’s health, education, roads and bridges, and was based on economic assumptions that were too optimistic.

“This budget agreement is a budget of many deficits — a deficit of principle, a deficit of fairness, a deficit of tax justice and, worst of all, a deficit of dollars,” said Gephardt, who stood alone among Hill Democratic leaders in his opposition. “I don’t think this budget is fair.”

Gephardt’s speech did little to slow the efforts of Republican leaders and the White House to rush the complex, five-year balanced budget plan through Congress before the start of a Memorial Day recess Friday.

And this is from a July 31 Times analysis story:

The tensions between Mr. Clinton and Mr. Gephardt underscore an unmistakable gulf that has emerged between the two ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. That gulf runs deeper than disagreement over the budget, and it is broader than the personal and philosophical differences between these two Democrats alone.It is rooted instead in conflicting visions of how the party can present itself as a distinct alternative to Republicans and take back Congress in the midterm elections next year.

Conceiving a unified strategy to achieve that victory has been made all the harder by Mr. Clinton’s steadfast sliding toward the political middle, leaving the two parties with agendas that look remarkably similar and with consequent tactical problems.

For all the backslapping at the White House on Tuesday, many Democrats, particularly in the House, are at odds with the Administration. They contend that the best way to persuade the electorate to send Democratic majorities to Congress in 1998 is to embarrass Republicans by forcing them to cast unpopular votes.

In contrast, White House aides argue that the way to Democratic success next year is to build on Mr. Clinton’s public popularity. They are searching for compromises with Republicans — the budget deal was one — so that the President can point to accomplishments, retain that popularity and so, it is hoped, be the champion who rallies his party to a 1998 triumph.

Obviously Obama isn’t citing his personal popularity as a strong suit. (His numbers are slightly better than a 10 percent unemployment rate would predict, however.) And, unlike Gephardt, Nancy Pelosi is not positioning herself for a presidential run. But the core points remain. A Democratic president tacking to the center to the dismay of his party’s left wing. A strategy of pursuing results over symbolic battles. It worked for Clinton in the late 90s. But, then, given the booming economy of the time, dressing up as Ronald McDonald and roller skating down Pennsylvania Avenue might have worked for Clinton. Unless we’re on the brink of a roaring recovery, Obama will not be so fortunate.

In related news, Obama will meet with Bill Clinton at the White House tomorrow.

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