History tends to repeat itself, this much we know from middle school. But for all its clichéd simplicity, there is some value to the axiom. Consider the similarities between 1994 and 2010. In ’94, rising Republican star Newt Gingrich (R-Ga) orchestrated the capture of both the House of Representatives and the Senate, propelling new victories with his codified set of Republican principles, the Contract With America. It was a massive blow to then-President Bill Clinton, who was forced to adopt a strategy of triangulation in response. Similarly, in 2010 the ultra-conservative Tea Party powered new Republican representatives and senators to Congress. Although the winnings were not as drastic as in 1994 – Democrats retained control of the Senate – Obama acknowledged the losses and began moving towards center not unlike Clinton 16 years prior.
After his victory, Gingrich wasted no time in pushing his conservative agenda. According to Elizabeth Drew in Showdown: The Struggle Between the Gingrich Congress and the Clinton White House, Gingrich understood the import of his victories and believed the American public had given him a mission to re-seize control of Washington and stand up to the Democrats who “had oppressed them” (Drew 17). Unfortunately for Gingrich, Clinton consistently outmaneuvered him in various legislative battles and during the Monica Lewinsky scandal – and of course he secured his reelection in 1996. With Gingrich’s approval plummeting and Clinton’s reaching an all-time high in 1998 – right in the middle of the Lewinsky scandal, no less – Gingrich saw his homogenous party begin to splinter and internal support turn sharply against him. In 1997, several prominent Republican lawmakers – including then-Chairman of the House Republican Conference John Boehner – initiated an internal coup to replace the divisive Gingrich. In 1998, following considerable midterm losses, Gingrich announced his intention to step down and he faded into relative obscurity – until the current GOP primary, that is.
By extrapolating from the circumstances of the Gingrich House, a fairly accurate portrait of the Boehner House can be drawn. Boehner (R-Ohio), a member of the GOP old guard, currently faces arguably nastier internal schisms than Gingrich did. The comparatively young House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va) has emerged as a prominent rival, seeking to distinguish himself from the old guard by throwing his support behind Tea Party freshmen. He is also unafraid of challenging Boehner’s leadership. This tendency was on full display during the 2011 debt ceiling talks – a veritable counterpart to the 1995-1996 budget battle between Clinton and Gingrich. As Boehner and Obama sought to reach a grand bargain, Cantor reportedly thwarted that potentiality, and relations between Boehner and Cantor have yet to fully cool. Most recently, Cantor broke with other establishment figures by endorsing the young, unproven Rep. Adam Kinzinger over veteran Rep. Donald Manzullo in a contentious Illinois battle. From the looks of things, Cantor shows no signs of bowing to internal pressures.
Whether Boehner’s leadership will face the same challenge he himself helped bring against Gingrich is an open question. While many signs point to internal disturbances, the greatest indicator will be the aftermath of the 2012 presidential race. Like Clinton in ’96, who faced lightweight Bob Dole, Obama will face what is likely to be a weak opponent, and those still in the running – Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, and Ron Paul – seem incapable of generating unifying support. Some of the GOP is already conceding defeat and looking forward to 2016, where they believe prospects are more favorable.
Predicting the future is always tricky, but the Boehner House has already shown remarkable similarities to Gingrich’s. And if Obama wins in 2012, that may fully ignite the Boehner Wars.
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