Strength through opposition

Grover Cleveland, it was said, engendered affection among Democrats because of the “enemies he has made.” Much of the same can be said of the last two Democratic presidents, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. Despite some disagreement with the “base” nevertheless both were given passes in the primaries and both were re-elected.

Contrast this with Jimmy Carter, who was challenged by Edward Kennedy in 1980. One of the reasons for the Kennedy insurgency was Carter was considered too conservative. Indeed in 1977-79, Republicans in Congress supported Carter initiatives with a greater percentage of their caucus than Democrats. Events did in Carter, not intransigence by the GOP. Kennedy’s challenge hurt Carter, along with John Anderson’s third party effort.

In the case of Clinton and Obama, Republicans enjoyed landslide midterms in 1994 and 2010. Carter, by contrast, had only modest losses in 1978, losing 15 seats out of 292. Essentially in 1995, Newt Gingrich attempted to govern through the Speaker’s box. After gaining 63 seats in 2010, John Boehner vowed to run a do-nothing congress and succeeded splendidly. Democrats, sensing trouble, united behind Clinton and Obama.

Republicans won their victories too early and grabbed majorities that were too big. Meanwhile in the Senate they continued to abuse the filibuster. Amateur GOP representatives such as the choleric Allan West entertained the press with outrageous remarks. They also wedded Democrats close to Obama, despite the fact that not a few were disappointed with the administration. Republican questioning of Obama from his birthplace to the validity of his election guaranteed Democratic solidarity.

After winning the midterm elections of 1958, Lyndon Johnson and his paladin in the House, Sam Rayburn, bemoaned “too many Democrats.” Like the Republicans of 1994 and 2010, this crop of 16 new senators and 49 representatives made the skillful team of Johnson and Rayburn’s lives miserable. They were ideological and impractical.

LBJ managed to divide Republicans in the years proceeding 1958, so much so that Republican Dwight Eisenhower’s administration was dubbed a “dime store New Deal” by conservative Barry Goldwater.

Republicans by contrast in 1960 united behind Richard Nixon after the landslide defeat of two years before. They almost won and managed to regain half of what they lost in the House. The great victories of Richard Nixon in 1972 and Ronald Reagan in 1984 were made possible by a cooperationist wing in the GOP, not by obdurate and sassy ideologies. In Carter’s case, Republicans killed him politically with kindness.

Apparently, as it was said of the Bourdons after the French Revolution, “they learned nothing and they forgot nothing.” Mitch McConnell and John Boehner have managed their troops with sad incompetence. Whereas LBJ would accept “a half a loaf,” the Republican leadership makes “no” a tactic as well as a strategy.

Obama’s strength grows as it appears that they oppose him for personal reason. After all, they once supported cap and trade, until Obama took over in 2008.

If Obama did not have this opposition he would have to conjure them up. Republicans are the source of this strength, after all.

Bill Clinton probably would have been a one-term president if not for Gingrich’s ill-advised shutdown of the government. He might have had to resign after the Lewinsky scandal came to light, but at the beginning most Americans thought it a partisan plot.

Republicans need to learn to play poker and be patient.

Perhaps a little timely moderation may be what the GOP needs.