During the presidential campaign, Candidate Obama told voters that he did not want to “refight the battles of the 1990s.”
Apparently, Congress did not get the memo.
The 111th is less than eight weeks old, but the stimulus negotiations that culminated in President Barack Obama’s bill signing Tuesday revived partisan dramas that should look familiar to anyone over the age of 35:
- a feud over funding for the National Endowment for the Arts;
- a clash over federal money for contraception;
- the vilification of an endangered mouse in California that shares a certain symbolic value with the previously vilified Spotted Owl;
- and even welfare reform is back.
“It’s 'Groundhog Day' in Washington,” said former Bush strategist and McCain media adviser Mark McKinnon. “Condoms. NEA. Abortion. Protecting small varmints. You can almost hear the collective sigh from America’s living rooms,” he says. “People have seen this movie before.”
Even worse, he added, “They thought they’d changed the channel.”
For all its implications for the nation’s future, the battle over the economic recovery bill was more like a trip in the wayback machine.
The tussle over $50 million for the National Endowment for the Arts, for example, raised the shade of Robert Mapplethorpe, whose art allowed Republicans to paint the Democrats as defenders of smut and sacrilege in 1989, and which gave them the leverage to restrict the agency’s grant-making powers during the ‘90s.
The minority’s stated objection to money for contraceptives was that it would not provide jobs or stimulate the economy, but the choice to make it a public example also marked another chapter in the safe-sex vs. abstinence-only saga that played out alongside welfare reform. The tale of “Nancy Pelosi’s mouse” turned out to be something of a red herring, but its outline was pulled straight from the Newt Gingrich library.
“Let the counterrevolution begin!” laughed Doug Muzzio, professor of public affairs at the City University of New York’s Baruch College. “You get these bizarre cyclical patterns in a whole bunch of arenas in politics, and this is one of them.”
While no one really expected the ideological disagreements between the parties to dissolve into a chorus of camp songs when Obama took office, the rutted road that is already being re-traveled seems to run counter not only to president’s will, but also to the verdict of the voters that change, of some sort, was in order this time around.
“No one is surprised that the fights are going to continue,” said McKinnon, “but at least people were hoping for some new fights.”
Americans frustrated with the roaring return of pitted partisanship might have foreseen that disempowered Republicans would reach for some of the same tools that brought them the Republican Revolution in 1994. And indeed, House Republican Whip Eric Cantor reportedly confers regularly with former Speaker Newt Gingrich, and has proven himself to be possessed of a certain nostalgia in other areas as well: His office celebrated the total House GOP rejection of the stimulus by releasing a Web ad declaring that the Republicans were "back" — set to the 1976 Aerosmith song "Back in the Saddle."
But it is harder to conceive why the Democrats, who have the White House, a majority in both houses of Congress, and a mandate to move the country forward, have contributed to the back-to-the-future factor as well.
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The inclusion in the House stimulus bill of a provision for a Temporary Assistance to Needy Families “emergency fund” to provide additional money to states with increased welfare caseloads was like waving a red cape in front of an already snorting GOP. While an emergency contingency fund to help states during economic downturns was part of the original law passed in 1996, Republicans immediately assailed the new fund, which did not tie grants to the unemployment rate, as a kind of blank check that would “undo” welfare reform.
Some argue that the back-and-forth is pure politics — or pure vengeance.
“You have to remember that the Congress is made up of 435 individually elected members, and nothing is more important to them than getting reelected,” said Rich Galen, a Republican consultant and former communications director for Gingrich’s political office. “Then they are required to do whatever they have to do to make sure they don’t find themselves in a primary fight, and that they crush their opponent,” he adds.
They are positioning themselves not for progress, he suggests, but for their constituents.
Muzzio goes one step further: “You voted for change, Obama is standing for change, and look what we’ve got in Congress. Part of it is simply retribution. The majority treats the minority like s---.”
If voters are tired of business as usual, however, it is unclear how such conduct will be met at the polls next time around.
There are more subtle factors at play as well. Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) offered a hint in January of last year, when he registered his objection to “a major theme” of Obama’s campaign.
“I agree that it would have been better not to have had to fight over some of the issues that occupied us in the nineties,” Frank wrote in the Huffington Post. “But there would have been only one way to avoid them — and that would have been to give up. More importantly, the only way I can think of to avoid ‘refighting the same fights we had in the 1990s’, to quote Senator Obama, is to let our opponents win these fights without a struggle.”
Since the ideological differences remain, Frank says, those who still believe in the import of the causes they championed in the ‘90s have no choice but to return to those same battlefields.
But there are ways to defend the union without re-enacting Gettysburg. And by insisting on repeating the past, Congress risks turning the legislature into a kabuki show, revolving stage and all. There is a difference, after all, in giving up on trying to help the poor, or secure women’s rights, or encourage fiscal responsibility, and in refusing to continue hot-button arguments — say, over the funding formula for welfare — that use up time, energy and political capital that could be directed down new, and potentially more productive avenues.
“The two parties in the house, both Republicans and Democrats, are farther to the edges than the parties are nationally,” said Galen. “The Democrats are more liberal, and the Republicans are more conservative.” Added Galen: “What happens with ideologues on each end is that they are willing to lose on the point of an ideological sword on some of these things, whether or not it makes any sense at all.”
Another reason so many old battles are back, noted Muzzio, may be that the debate over the recovery act brought up such a broad range of issues.
“The stimulus bill in a sense provides the playing field,” he said. “There’s no other piece of legislation that you can think of where literally everything is on the table in one way or another.”
Except, of course, for the budget, which is coming soon.