Why Obama Needs a Republican Congress

By Rich Lowry

The undertakers of Bill Clinton’s political doom showed up in Little Rock, Ark., in 1992 for a meeting with the president-elect two months before his inauguration. They were the leaders of the Democratic Congress, and they might as well have been draped in black crepe.

“You can trust us,” House Speaker Tom Foley told Clinton, in an assurance as false as it was sincere. “We all want to make this administration succeed.”

Two years later, Clinton stood among smoldering political ruins. Democrats had lost both houses of Congress. A Republican upstart defeated Tom Foley. In trusting the Democratic leadership in Congress, Clinton nearly destroyed his presidency.

He learned a bitter lesson in the perils of trying to govern a center-right country in league with a left-wing Congress. It’s not an accident that the most sustained period of political success for any of the last three Democratic presidents, outside of their initial honeymoons, came after Clinton lost Congress. Only then was he forced to govern from the center.

If President Barack Obama is ever going to regain the ground he’s lost as a bipartisan healer determined to transcend ideological divisions, he’ll need Speaker Nancy Pelosi or Majority Leader Harry Reid or both shunted back to the minority. For Obama, a Republican Congress could be a counterintuitive political boon.

Recent history suggests that there are two broad options for a Democratic president yoked to a Democratic Congress. He can, like Clinton and Obama, get along with Congress and ineluctably get pulled to the left of the electorate. Or, he can, like Jimmy Carter, keep his distance and his relative moderation, and suffer an acrimonious relationship that brands him as ineffectual.

In theory, it should be possible to escape this double bind. But Democrats with control of both the executive and legislative branches have an irresistible FDR complex. They consider it their duty to establish vast new programmatic edifices, or die trying.

Outside of any ideological predilections, Congress is a drag. Congressional leaders generally don’t make appealing national figures. They rule over an unwieldy (and often unseemly) institution and rise to prominence based on their appeal to their fellow members. At the health-care summit, Pelosi and Reid characteristically jangled as Obama soothed. He’d have been better off without them.

Obama forcefully pushed for a stimulus bill loaded with years’ worth of pent-up liberal spending priorities, a cap-and-trade bill greased with corporate giveaways, and the health-care bill that features a new partisan outrage every other day. All of this positions Obama further to the left, and deeper into politics-as-usual, than before he signed up with Pelosi and Reid.

A Republican Congress would give him a handy foil and force him, right in time for his re-election campaign, into strategic bipartisanship. The Republican takeover in 1994 seemed the end for Bill Clinton. Long after Tom Foley had been forgotten, though, Clinton signed major bipartisan welfare-reform and deficit-reduction bills, while making incremental steps on health care that were popular and sustainable.

Obama probably doesn’t consider a Republican Congress in his interest. But with all he’s done to bring one about, who knows?

Rich Lowry is editor of the National Review.
©2010 by King Features Synd., Inc.