Four days before Christmas in 1995, Rep. John Boehner, a member of the House Republican leadership, dumped several lumps of coal into a gift box with Bill Clinton’s name on it. The publicity stunt was the Republicans’ way of blaming the president for an acrimonious government shutdown.
Led by new House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who had orchestrated a GOP takeover of Congress a year earlier with help from a budget-cutting “Contract With America,” Republicans were trying to trim the federal budget. As a sign of how much more rational Washington politics was 25 years ago, President Clinton had agreed to balance the budget. The fight was over what to cut.
Over time, the institutional memory of the budget wars of the winter of 1995-96 has metastasized into something sinister. “A landmark in U.S. political history,” NPR remembers it, “birthing a new era of American gridlock that arguably led to the sharp partisanship that has gripped the nation.” In a 2018 retrospective, The Atlantic characterized Gingrich as the man who “turned partisan battles into bloodsport, wrecked Congress, and paved the way for Trump’s rise.”
I covered those Gingrich-Clinton skirmishes as a White House correspondent for the Baltimore Sun and remember things differently. For starters, government shutdowns over a budget impasse weren’t new. There were eight of them while Ronald Reagan was president, one for each year, and five during Jimmy Carter’s one-term presidency. What Gingrich did was get congressional Republicans in the ballgame on Capitol Hill, but if the polling is to be believed, he didn’t best Bill Clinton in these standoffs. Yes, the rhetoric was nastier than when Reagan and Tip O’Neill locked horns, but cable television is as much to blame for that as Newt and his happy warriors.
The GOP takeover of both houses of Congress in the 1994 midterm elections stunned Clinton, as it would have any president. In the Senate, Republicans successfully defended all their seats while picking up eight Democratic ones. In the House, Gingrich’s revolutionaries netted 54 seats, giving the GOP the majority for the first time since the mid-1950s. At a post-election press conference, Clinton was reduced to muttering, “I am relevant. The Constitution gives me relevance.”
But that self-pity didn’t last long. His rivalry with Gingrich galvanized Clinton. He found his footing as president. With Gingrich as both a foil and a negotiating partner, Clinton was a more effective leader under divided government.
The process wasn’t pretty, but Gingrich and Clinton revamped the welfare system, created a new entitlement that guaranteed health care for children who didn’t qualify for Medicaid, and balanced the budget. They had proved they could work together before Gingrich became speaker, negotiating carefully over how many Republican votes Gingrich could deliver to pass NAFTA, a treaty both of them favored. “Despite all their political differences and their highly charged public battles, President Bill Clinton and House Speaker Newt Gingrich managed to work behind the scenes to make government work,” historian Steven Gillon noted a year into Trump’s presidency. Gillon added that divided government was more effective in the 1990s than one-party rule has been in the 21st century.
It could happen again, but only if the Jan. 5 runoffs for Georgia’s two Senate seats go the Republicans’ way. I realize that this is counterintuitive. Nor is it the prevailing view: I’m writing this essay in response to a Morton Kondracke column arguing that the future of Joe Biden’s presidency, not to mention our Republic itself, depends on Democrats winning in the Peach State and thereby capturing both houses of Congress and the White House.
I love Mort Kondracke like a brother -- although, he’s closer to my father’s age, so I suppose I actually love him more like an uncle. If you happen to have an uncle, especially one who is passionate about something, you know that you must bear with them when they’re on a roll. Mort is passionate about good government. Consequently, Donald Trump drives him crazy. He’s hardly alone. That said, filing lawsuits to challenge election results that didn’t go your way is not staging a “coup d'état.” It’s called “litigation.” And access to the courts is any American’s right, even those with no class or sense of history and who abuse Twitter to the point of insanity.
But at a time when both political parties are far more polarized than they were a generation ago, we need divided government more than ever. It’s the only check and balance remaining on two dominant political parties, for whom the center of gravity is so far from the center that they’ve nearly fallen off the ends of the earth.
The Perils of Having it All
If the Jan. 5 elections don’t go Republicans’ way, the federal government will be in the hands of a Democratic House led by Nancy Pelosi, a Democratic Senate led by Chuck Schumer, and a Democratic White House led by Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. To the extent the media can wean itself off Donald Trump’s myriad faults and foibles, Democrats’ can also expect supportive press coverage. Time magazine signaled the dawning of the new era this week by naming Joe Biden and Kamala Harris as its Person(s) of the Year. But what that dynamic duo cannot count on is being cut any slack from their party’s restive progressive wing.
In 2018, Democrats took back control of the House after its candidates heeded Nancy Pelosi’s advice to eschew talk of impeachment and focus on health care and other kitchen table issues instead. Once she reclaimed the speaker’s gavel, however, Pelosi was unable to resist the pressure of feisty young House leftists epitomized by “The Squad,” who were demanding Trump’s scalp. So they impeached the president, costing themselves seats in 2020, but Pelosi is now all in. By her own admission, the speaker who boorishly ripped up Trump’s State of the Union address earlier this year has become so partisan that the House couldn’t put aside politics long enough to reach agreement with the Senate on a second pandemic relief bill.
The pressures on Chuck Schumer will come from the same direction. Seven of his fellow Democratic senators challenged Biden for the Democratic presidential nomination, and two of those who ran the strongest, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, are among the most liberal members in Schumer’s caucus. Neither has ever shown any indication that they desire to get along by going along. And Schumer’s real nemesis is the same as Nancy Pelosi’s: freshman Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the barista-turned-congresswoman who turned 31 in October and yet acts as though she thinks she ought to be running the place. She and her comrades were already making demands of Biden within two weeks of Election Day, including for their signature “Green New Deal.”
It is already clear that AOC holds some sway over Schumer. In September, he made headlines by telling the media, “Once we win the majority, God willing, everything is on the table.” If it seems cheeky to assume that God wants Democrats to end the Senate filibuster and pack the Supreme Court, the context of that press conference was even more bracing: Schumer was making a joint appearance with AOC, who said that Democrats need to tell Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell “that he is playing with fire.”
Why is Schumer adopting the attitude of a campus radical instead of a seasoned statesman? Perhaps he’s afraid for his job, specifically a primary challenge from Ocasio-Cortez. She has pointedly refused to rule out such a gambit. Why should she? She got to Capitol Hill in 2018 by knocking off Pelosi lieutenant Joe Crowley, a member of the House leadership whose liberal voting record didn’t inoculate him from a successful primary challenge.
These are the people Biden will be in bed with should Democrats take the Senate. Their agenda doesn’t stop at the Green New Deal or single-payer health care, either. It ranges from defunding the police, teaching critical race theory in public schools, offering “free” college tuition, and taxing the net worth of well-off Americans. Progressives have also made demands about how Biden staffs his administration. None of the progressives’ priorities will evaporate if Democrats lose the two Georgia Senate seats. It’s just that they will be in a better position to press their demands if Schumer has the gavel. He’s shown that he can be swayed.
Ten days after Trump’s inauguration, grassroots progressives demonstrated outside Schumer’s Brooklyn apartment. It was weird, since the Democratic leader had already announced his opposition to Trump’s travel ban, denounced his list of potential Supreme Court nominees, and come out in opposition to eight of Trump’s Cabinet nominees. But Schumer had voted to confirm Trump’s national security team -- there was no conceivable reason not to do so -- and this made him a target of the Resistance. Rather than point out that the mob was essentially demanding that he negate the 2016 election, Schumer tried to mollify the Jacobins by being one of only six Democrats to vote against confirming a highly qualified Asian American woman for secretary of the Department of Transportation, a nominee who happens to be Mitch McConnell’s wife.
It’s not that compromising with Mitch McConnell, aka Mr. Obstruction, is any picnic. But Schumer’s vote against Elaine Chao was precisely the kind of unsocial gesture that Joe Biden eschewed in his own 36-year Senate career. So would Biden do better with McConnell as Senate majority leader than Schumer? I think so, and my guess is that Biden does, too.
It wouldn’t always be smooth sailing. The times when McConnell chooses to play his self-described “Grim Reaper” role, he would make a convenient foil for Biden – just as Newt Gingrich did for Bill Clinton. Conversely, on the occasions when McConnell chooses to engage in good faith with the Democrats, he could be a useful negotiating partner -- as Gingrich also was with Clinton -- in forging compromises not necessarily pleasing to the ideologues on either the right or the left.
Biden lives for reaching this kind of consensus: He’s done it all his career. McConnell’s record in this regard is less reassuring. To Democrats, he will always be the double-dealer who sat on a Supreme Court nomination by President Obama for 10 months while offering the dubious explanation that it was an election year -- and who then turned around and rammed through the Amy Coney Barrett nomination eight days before a presidential election.
There’s no way to spin that, but even before this display of raw partisanship, Democrats had demonized McConnell as the guy who told National Journal magazine in 2010, “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.”
The quote is accurate, but the context is missing. As PolitiFact pointed out, McConnell was discussing modern presidents whose party suffered defeats in midterm elections, but who won reelection themselves in two years. McConnell was explaining that he hoped Republicans had learned those lessons and wouldn’t overreach – and he was talking specifically about Bill Clinton in 1995-96. He also added that if Obama was “willing to meet us halfway on some of the biggest issues, it’s not inappropriate for us to do business with him.”
“In other words, in the very same interview, McConnell said that he’d be willing to work with Obama “if Obama is ‘willing to meet us halfway,’” noted PolitiFact’s Robert Farley in his 2010 fact-check. “That’s called compromise,” Farley wrote. “And that sounds very much in the spirit of Obama's call to ‘seek out common ground.’”
This assessment proved prophetic. The Obama administration found, if not common ground, then at least compromises that each side could live with on a 2010 tax compromise, a 2011 budget bill, and a last-minute deal in 2012 to raise the debt ceiling. In each case, the administration’s point man -- the guy who dealt directly with McConnell -- was Vice President Joe Biden. The two men had been friends when they both served in the Senate, and it showed. In 2011, Biden accepted an invitation to give a joint lecture with McConnell at the University of Louisville.
“You want to see whether or not a Republican and Democrat really like one another?” Biden told the audience to general laughter. “Well, I’m here to tell you we do.” Four years later, McConnell was the only Republican senator at the funeral of Joe Biden’s oldest son, Beau.
The following year, in December 2016, as Biden presided over the Senate -- a vice president’s ceremonial role -- for the last time, many senators gave tributes to him. The most moving came from the majority leader. “We got results that would not have been possible without a negotiating partner like Joe Biden,” said Mitch McConnell. “Obviously, I don't always agree with him, but I do trust him, implicitly. He doesn't break his word, he doesn't waste time telling me why I’m wrong. … There's a reason ‘Get Joe on the phone' is shorthand for ‘Time to get serious' in my office.’”