Tevi Troy is a Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute and author of Intellectuals and the American Presidency: Philosophers, Jesters, and Technicians. He has previously served as a senior White House aide, and worked for the House Republican Policy Committee during the 104th Gingrich Congress.
Just after the election last November that brought back Republican control of the House, I predicted here that Republicans would do much better in a budget showdown with President Obama than the Gingrich Congress did against President Clinton in their own budget showdowns of the 1990s.
Obama and the Democrats thought otherwise, and he even prepared for a GOP Congress by reading books about the Clinton administration, and studying up on how Clinton outmaneuvered the GOP during the 1995-1996 government shutdown. The Democrats seemed to be counting on breaking out the old Clinton playbook to give the GOP another thumping and to regain political momentum.
While partisans on both sides continue to argue over who won and who lost the recent debt ceiling face-off, it is quite clear that the GOP did not get their heads handed to them, as they did under Clinton. Each of the three reasons I mentioned last November played a key role in the establishment of a new script for budget confrontations.
The first reason had to do with leadership, as I predicted that House Speaker John Boehner “won’t be trapped into making the same kind of tactical and rhetorical mistakes that Clinton goaded Gingrich into making.” The difference between Boehner and Gingrich was quite apparent over the past few months, as Boehner led his oft-unruly caucus with a steady hand, giving when he had to, but staying true to his party’s core principles throughout. Most importantly, he never made any major public mistakes, as Gingrich did when he complained about Clinton’s treatment of him on Air Force One, which led to the infamous and iconic “cry baby” headline in the New York Daily News. Boehner’s steadiness and mistake-free style prompted the Democrats to change tactics and aim their fire at Majority Leader Eric Cantor instead, which had only limited effectiveness.
Second, I noted that the GOP conference elected in 2010 was very different than the post-1994 caucus, and quoted Fred Barnes’ observation that “[m]ost of the 80-plus new members are spending hawks.” This reconfigured caucus made a real difference in recent days, as it became abundantly clear that they would hold the line when it came to both insisting on spending cuts and resisting tax increases. Democrats and other commentators have called them “terrorists,” “jihadists,” and the like for this stance, but they also now know that the GOP caucus is not from the go-along-get-along school of public officials.
Third, and most importantly, I noted that the change in the media over just the last decade and a half had given Republicans new outlets for getting across their message, and the Republicans made the most of these outlets. Tools like search engines, YouTube, and social media have leveled the playing field and improve Republicans’ ability to disseminate their message. In the previous budgets showdowns, Republicans fought an uphill battle against media bias. This time, Republicans still had to deal with media bias, but they also had sympathetic outlets on cable, in print, on the web, and over the airwaves that did not exist previously.
Furthermore, the Internet helped keep the media honest. Republicans may not always agree with the decisions of a “neutral” judging site like PolitiFact, but PolitiFact judgments will call Democrats out for mis-statements along with Republicans. In the debt ceiling debate, for example, Politifact found that Obama’s statement that “a ‘clear majority’ of Republican voters think tax revenues should be included as part of a budget deal” was mostly false; that Harry Reid’s claim that the U.S. lost 8 million jobs during George W. Bush's years in office deserved a “pants on fire,” as did Nancy Pelosi’s chart minimizing the Obama administration’s role in national debt accumulation; and that Obama earned a Full Flop on the Flip-O-Meter for having switched positions on raising the debt limit.
This useful service, coupled with the growth of ombudsmen at such previously impregnable institutions such as the New York Times and the Washington Post, as well as legions of bloggers flyspecking every word from politicians and reporters alike, helped change the media equation for Republicans. These factors do not eliminate media bias, but they sure make it harder for media to get away unchallenged with obvious displays of bias.
The changing face of the media can best be seen in the way the White House press corps challenged Obama and his communications apparatus on his lack of a plan for dealing with the debt ceiling hike. Obama has used this tactic of lofty rhetoric coupled with elusive details before, particularly on health care, but in this instance, the tactic failed him, as reporters kept asking him and his representatives where their plan was. At one point, NBC’s Chuck Todd pressed White House Press Secretary Jay Carney so hard on this point that Carney got flustered and asked “You need it written down?” In the past, the answer might have been no, but this time around, thanks to the collapse of the mainstream media’s monopoly on the news, the answer was “yes.”
Unfortunately for the White House, none of these three factors are likely to change anytime soon. Boehner has shown that he can remain cool under pressure, the Republican spending hawks are further emboldened by their show of resolve, and the media landscape is getting ever flatter. What all this means is that President Obama needs to throw out the Clinton playbook and come up with a new one. 1995-1996 version is now officially out of date.