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Ross Douthat: The Ghosts of 1994

[Ross Douthat is an Op-Ed columnist at The New York Times.]

There are obvious parallels between Barack Obama’s push for health care reform and Bill Clinton’s ill-fated attempt 16 years ago. In both cases, an apparent legislative juggernaut hit a wall of public skepticism. Both presidents saw their poll numbers wilt in the summertime heat. Both White Houses staged a September address to Congress in an effort to regain the political initiative.

We know how the story turned out last time. Clinton’s popularity, temporarily boosted by his September speech, quickly sank again. Health care reform withered on the vine. Public anger with Washington boiled higher. And Newt Gingrich’s Congressional Republicans swept into power the following fall.

The long shadow of that 1994 drubbing helps explain why Democrats will probably end up passing something called “health care reform” before the year is out, the better to avoid their party’s Clinton-era fate.

But Frank Luntz, the pollster behind Gingrich’s Contract With America, thinks they may have the wrong early-1990s parallel in mind.

When I asked him about the lessons of 1994, Luntz — whose latest book, “What Americans Really Want ... Really,” is pitched to a bipartisan audience — happily rattled off the parallels between that era and this one: anxiety about deficits, furious distrust of Washington, growing doubts about a Democratic president.

But Luntz insisted that in the run-up to the ’94 election, “it wasn’t the health care debate that was driving the anger; it was the crime bill.”

That piece of legislation, which mixed stricter sentencing laws with more money for prison-building and more financing for police, was supposed to cement Clinton’s reputation as a tough-minded centrist.

Instead, the crime bill became a lightning rod for populist outrage. The price tag made it seem fiscally irresponsible. (Back then, $30 billion was real money.) The billions it lavished on crime prevention — like the infamous funding of “midnight basketball” — looked liked ineffective welfare spending. The gun-control provisions felt like liberalism-as-usual.

“Every day that the Republicans delayed the bill,” Luntz remembers, “the public learned more about it — and the more they learned, the angrier they got.”

That’s exactly what’s been happening now. The health care push has opened up arguments about abortion, euthanasia and illegal immigration that the Democrats would rather avoid. At the same time, it’s become the vessel for a year’s worth of anxieties about bailouts, deficits and Beltway incompetence...
Read entire article at NYT