Monday, October 25, 2010

History Never Repeats Itself

cross-posted at Dagblog

Election day is next Tuesday. Papers like the New York Times and Washington Post began publishing their post-mortem analyses of the election results last week. What should Obama do now that next Tuesday's results are in? Highly paid opinion writers have opinions.

The current conventional wisdom has two basic pillars:

1) It is currently 1994.

2) Since it's 1994, Bill Clinton should be President.

I'm going to leave the actual electoral predictions to my colleague Articleman and to folks like Nate Silver. But even if Tuesday night were to turn into an exact replay of 1994, district by district, the political situation on Wednesday morning would still be something completely new. History echoes itself, but it never repeats exactly. If this really were 1994, of course, being more like Bill Clinton would be a stupid idea, like telling someone fighting Muhammad Ali to be more like Sonny Liston. As Ezra Klein and Josh Marshall both remind us, the Big Dog was soundly beaten in 1994. And his post-1994 playbook, no matter how successful it was fifteen years ago, is just not going to work in 2011. Things have changed.

The point of all the "1994 all over again" spin is that it allows reporters and "expert" sources to come off like experts and make confident pronouncements about how things are going to go. "It's tough to make predictions," as Yogi Berra said, "especially about the future." That's why most pundits and sources try to predict the past instead. The point is not to be useful or even to be right, but to sound knowledgeable, and if pundits just predict a replay of what happened last time they can stick to repeating what they know instead of thinking about the unknowns. And if things play out differently, well, the pundits bet with the smart money and that's what really matters, if you're a pundit.

Planning a strategy on the assumption that things will go exactly the way they went last time is inviting one's own defeat, especially in adversarial contests. If something worked on your adversary last time, and they're coming back, do you really think they're going to make precisely the same mistakes this time? France in 1940 is not France in 1918, and you can't expect the Germans to cooperate by sticking to the strategies that lost them World War I. It's still very important not to repeat major strategic mistakes, like allowing unemployment to hit 10% in an election year, trying to march an army from Western Europe all the way to Moscow, or attempting to reduce the deficit during a massive recession. Those will always lose. But you can't count on winning the way you did last time, because the circumstances change and the opposition adapts. When Very Serious People talk about how Obama can win by using Clinton's playbook, they might as well be talking about defending France with the Maginot Line. Marshal Joffre was a Very Serious Person, too.

There are a bunch of reasons why the political situation in Washington, even if Tuesday night looks like deja vu, will actually be terra incognita, requiring a brand new map.

1) We're in much worse shape. In 1994, we were going through a moderate cyclical recession. We were also at peace, with a secure feeling of military near-omnipotence. We are now mired in a much deeper and longer recession, with troops in two ongoing wars. The economy has been seriously, structurally damaged, and there's the potential for plenty more bad news around the corner. The moderate and centrist small-bore fixes that worked well enough in the 1990s will not fix the problems we have now. Neither will just waiting for things to get better. And inaction, let alone wrong-headed action, could make things even worse.

The Republicans have been campaigning for two solid years on a hot-potato strategy, trying to keep the Democrats from fixing things, on the principle that if things were still a mess in 2010 they would get power back. They have no lucid proposals for fixing the economy; they want a mix of useless but expensive tax breaks for folks who are already hoarding their capital and foolishly pro-cyclical spending cuts that will make the depression even worse. If, as they and the media establishment expect, they get the hot potato back next week, they have to figure out what to do about it. And they have no plans that will work. The only predictable result is a lot of trouble.

2. The Republicans are counting on winning this time.
1994 was a big surprise. People weren't predicting it. The Republicans themselves weren't seriously predicting it. They've been predicting big wins in 2010 for well over a year. They have promised their base a victory, and more to the point they have promised that base the spoils of victory. Anything but a major rightward policy shift is going to disappoint and antagonize that base. Indeed, as Daniel Larison points out, disappointment and anger from the right wing is almost certain. There's going to be rage if (as Larison believes), the GOP comes up a few House seats short of a majority, but there's also going to be rage if the majority is smaller than the months of what Larison calls "overhyping" have led conservatives to expect and, most of all there will be rage when the GOP can't give their base everything their base has been counting on. Any new Republicans elected next week will have been elected to run Obama out of town, not to compromise with him. The voters who will carry any such Republicans to victory are hellbent against compromise.

3. Obama has passed more legislation in his first two years than Clinton did.
For all the disappointment and anger among the left-wing base, Obama has gotten more done than Clinton did in the first two years. He didn't pass the health care bill I would have designed, but he passed a health care bill. He didn't make financial reform as strict or thorough as I think we need, but he passed a financial reform bill. And if he blew the size of the stimulus, he passed a much larger stimulus than the other side of the aisle wanted. In the same period, Clinton passed the Family Medical Leave Act and the Brady Bill (which requires background checks for gun purchases except when it doesn't), created Don't Ask Don't Tell (which was treated as progressive at the time), and got stuffed on health care. I don't mean any disrespect to the Big Dog; those are just the facts. And while the Family Medical Leave Act is a great thing, it isn't a thing that the Republicans were hell-bent against or wanted to repeal. Obama, on the other hand, has passed major legislation that the Republicans hate, have campaigned against, and will claim they have a mandate to repeal. Compromising with the other party is much easier when you're talking about what to do next. "Compromising," for Obama, would mean giving some of his major legislative accomplishments back. And that is neither a recipe for success nor compromise.

It isn't so much Barack Obama isn't Bill Clinton as that he can't be Bill Clinton. And he'll pay badly if he tries.

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