As Republicans approach the congressional elections of 2018, they need to beware of the pitfalls that may lie ahead.
An analysis of the mistakes Bill Clinton made in his first midterm election in 1994 would be instructive for today’s GOP leaders.
In late September of 1994, President Clinton asked for my advice on the optimal messaging he should use in his campaign to keep Democrats in control of both houses.
My survey came to an odd conclusion that should be heeded by Speaker Ryan and Leader McConnell as they prepare for their own midterms.
President Clinton insisted that his party should keep Congress because he had created eight million new jobs, cut the federal deficit by $600 billion, and achieved the lowest combined rates of inflation and unemployment in twenty-five years. The economic statistics of the day confirmed these facts.
But my survey revealed that this message would not work in the 1994 elections. Many voters did not believe the president and others refused to attribute the achievements to his leadership, much less that of his partisans in Congress.
There is a parallel between the disbelieving doubts that blocked Clinton’s message in 1994 and the Republican insistence on claiming that the tax cuts of December 2017 are responsible for the current wave of prosperity. Swing voters just aren’t buying it.
However, the survey did offer a way to win the election. Voters did agree that Clinton and his party had accomplished many things of lesser magnitude including the passage of family and medical leave, the confirmation of good Supreme Court justices, the creation of Americorps – a domestic equivalent of the Peace Corps, strengthened sentences for crime, and cutting the size of the federal workforce. These and other “bite size” achievements, the poll found, were good enough to let Clinton keep control of Congress.
And so, now, the Republican Congress can claim credit for many accomplishments of lesser magnitude including giving terminally ill patients the right to try experimental medicines, eliminating the requirement of buying health insurance, funding of the military, appointment of Gorsuch to the Court, increased tariffs to force fair trade, tearing up the Iran deal and many others. Voters will believe that Trump has accomplished these things and are likely to vote to keep Republicans in power as a result.
But, back in 1994, President Clinton would have none of it. In a telephone call with him and Hillary in early October of 1994, he insisted, “I did create eight million new jobs. I did lower interest rates. I did cut taxes.”
When I told him voters wouldn’t believe him, he insisted that he would educate them. Hillary and I both urged him to switch his message to focus on the smaller achievements that voters would believe he had accomplished. But he refused. As predicted, the message fell on disbelieving ears and the Democrats lost both houses.
Now, the message is clear for the GOP in its congressional campaigns: don’t fall into the trap of trying to get elected for the right reasons. Don’t try to educate the voters to believe that the tax cut has caused an economic turnaround. Instead, work on selling the very real, but smaller, accomplishments of this incredibly fruitful Congress.