Back to the Nineties

The current election results are making us remember 1994, when also, under a Democratic President, and with health care issues in the air, the Republicans won control of the U S House of Representatives.  I’m concerned with social issues, and what I remember is that Republicans did not fight to the death to oppose Clinton’s judges; but the configuration of a Democratic President and a Republican Congress led to the biggest and most inclusive of all the several economic booms since 1982.  People that were considered unemployable in other booms were finding jobs in that one.  President Clinton triangulated his way to ‘welfare’ reform.  (The really big welfare programs, Social Security and Medicare, were not reformed at that time; Aid to Families with Dependent Children was.)  The Internet boom pulled the country out of the savings-and-loan, or commercial real estate, crash of the early 90s.  And in one year the Federal budget actually balanced – under a Democratic President, yet.  The great inflation of the 1970s, which my generation fears, did not recur – prices remained very stable.

If the American people like divided government, if we like taking advantage of that opportunity which a ‘presidential’ system gives us, the dispensation of a Democratic President with a Republican House would seem to give us, if anything, better results, in terms of employment and price stability combined, than the reverse.  Now, since World War II a Democratic President has faced a Republican Speaker of the House only in 1947-48 and 1995-2000.  The reverse configuration prevailed under every Republican President since 1955, with the exception of the period 2000-06.  Some of the intervals with a Republican President and a Democratic House have been relatively prosperous; only twice were there balanced budgets, in 1956 and 1969, and overall government spending was less controlled under that regime than under the reverse.

This article by John F. Harris in Politico is the best I have yet seen on how the age we are now entering is like and unlike the Clinton – Gingrich era. Obama will either have to overcome his allergy to antithesis or his arrogance, as has been pointed out by people on the left as well as the right [Read: Maureen Dowd, Can the Dude Abide?] to be able to govern as Clinton did.  At least he is very unlikely to make use of a Monica Lewinsky!

California is another matter.  The high water mark of securing a Republican Speaker of the Assembly for several months in 1996 is, to say the least, not likely to be repeated.  Partly because of the nativist-oriented Proposition 187, a population showed up to the polls in 1996 and ever since that in many way resembles the old Southern Democrats; regardless of what they actually believed, they would not, for a century, vote for any person bearing the Republican label. The evidence seems to be that the Latino population leans to moderate liberalism in economic policy and social conservatism in moral and cultural issues, but they will reject anyone with the label Republican.  The best thing to try to do in such a state, pun intended, is to try to leverage between the Latinos and the Hollywood and Silicon Valley Democrats, which have, to say the least, very different priorities.  But I fear that the real donkey in the room is the public sector unions, including the teachers unions, of course, but also the police and prison guards unions.  (With a few exceptions such as longshoremen, I don’t regard private sector unions as much of a danger to the economy or the society in our time.)  The public sector unions have kept the two sub-parties together by deferring to Hollywood’s social agenda while pursuing their big-government goals on all other fronts.  On local issues such as school boards and education policy, the public at large tends to defer to the public sector unions.  As I may have said before, the dark side of public distrust in our elected officials is a relatively high level of public trust in our unelected officials and government workers, a trend I greatly fear.  Jerry Brown helped to legalize and unleash the public sector unions during the first age of his governorship.  But when he was mayor of Oakland, even the conservative City Journal had praise for him.  Will he now have the wisdom and strength of will to face down the public sector unions?  Time will tell.

The other remarkable thing about demographics is that Texas, which is now more prosperous than California and better governed, and seems to be on its way to being the Hong Kong of America or something like that, is also a state where Anglos are no longer a majority.  It has been a great reversal.  I remember when I was in graduate school in Texas in the 1970s, thinking that the general quality of their public infrastructure at the time left one with the impression that they had just won their independence from Mexico the previous week!  Now their public infrastructure is probably more advanced than ours.  Nevertheless, in Texas it seems to be still respectable to be a Republican.  How do they manage this?  I have no idea.

Related: “Can Obama Pull a Bill Clinton” by John F. Harris at

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