1998 wasn’t what you think, and why you shouldn’t take advice from your opponent

[Continuing our series on deception in politics and public policy.]

About 35-40 percent of Americans lean to the Left. Of those, only 18-23 percent are liberals. And, of those, only 5-10 percent are Obama-style leftists (Progressives, i.e., liberals who, unlike traditional, JFK-type liberals, do not believe in limits on the power of politicians and bureaucrats). Despite their status as members of a small ideological minority, activitists on the Left dominate politics at the national level, controlling the executive branch of the federal government as well as the Senate, while the “Republican-controlled” House is dominated by RINOs who are justly ridiculed as hapless.

How can this be? Here’s how:

A key to strategy is tricking your opponent into taking action that is against his or her own interest.

For example, you might trick your opponent as to your capabilities and weaknesses. Sun Tzu, as the presumed author of The Art of War, advised, “Appear weak when you are strong, and strong when you are weak.” If you are successful in this regard, your enemy will attack you where you are strong rather than where you are weak.

The Left may be disasters when it comes to running domestic policy and foreign policy, but they’re great at politics, especially this aspect of political strategy.

From the Demographic Doom that supposedly faces Republicans (so-called “minorities” growing so fast that Republicans may soon become extinct) to Karl Rove’s claim that Tea Party candidates do less well than RINOs in November, the Left and their Republican enablers use bogeymen to scare the GOP away from following strategies that would bring then political success. (In future columns, I’ll analyze those concepts, the Demographic Doom and the supposed relative incompetence of Tea Partiers.)

Currently, Republicans in Washington are panicking over the I-word, impeachment. Now, impeachment-and-removal is not something that’s going to happen to Barack Obama. That’s because a successful impeachment would need the backing of a significant number of honest Democrats who would stand up to the President over his corruption and abuse of power, as honest Republicans stood up to the Obama of the 1970s, Richard Nixon. Today, there aren’t that many honest Democrats left. (How many Obama administration officials have resigned based on principle, as some Nixon administration officials did?)

Realizing that impeachment ain’t gonna happen, Republicans might put pressure on Democrats to explain why they’re protecting the President, why they’re excusing the targeting of the President’s adversaries by the IRS and the lie that “Al Qaeda is on the run” (a lie that had to be covered up, which coverup led to the Benghazi scandal) and the lies that, under Obamacare, you’d be able to keep your healthcare plan and your doctor and you’d save money and you wouldn’t be forced to finance abortifacients.

Yet Republicans are not taking the fight to the Democrats, out of fear that, if they’re too negative and they criticize the President too much, they’ll blow the chance for the victory that will otherwise be theirs this November.

Much of this fear is rooted in the experience of 1998. President Bill Clinton was impeached for repeated perjury and for organizing a conspiracy to cover up his crimes. He was acquitted due to the fact that a number of Democrats who admitted that he was guilty cast “no” votes anyway. Then the Democratic Party did unexpectedly well in the November races for the U.S. House. This was blamed on the Clinton impeachment and on Speaker Newt Gingrich, who was supposedly a divisive figure. (Disclosure: I was senior researcher for the Gingrich presidential campaign.)

Gingrich had predicted that Republicans would pick up seats, and the shortfall between his prediction and the actual result helped his enemies push him out of office. The hapless Denny Hastert became Speaker, and House Republicans were never a major force again.

The problem, though, wasn’t really with Republican performance in that election. The problem was the prediction.

Gingrich is a historian. He looked at historical patterns, which showed that a political party always (“always,” it seemed) gains seats in the House when the other party has controlled the White House for six years. At that point in the cycle, the bloom is off the rose for the party in the White House, and the opposition is in a position to recover seats that it had lost as it was losing the two previous presidential elections.

Instead of gaining seats, Republicans in 1998 lost three seats in the House and Democrats picked up four (the number of independents fell from two to one). They maintained control of the House and would remain in control through the next three cycles, but the loss was treated as catastrophic, especially by people looking for any excuse they could find to get rid of Speaker Gingrich.

The GOP actually did worse in the subsequent election, in 2000, losing a couple more seats. But, by then, Gingrich was gone, so it wasn’t a big deal.

Even so, the 1998 election was not what it appeared to be. It was loss for the GOP, yes, but mainly it was a loss compared to expectations. Republicans thought they were destined to win big in 1998, and they didn’t. That expectation was based in part on a misunderstanding of the historical patterns.

When a party does unusually well in one election, it tends to fall back to earth in the next one. In a “wave” election such as benefitted Republicans in 1994 or 2010 or Democrats in 1974 or 2006 – an election in which voters on one side are especially well motivated to turn out to vote – the winning party picks up seats that it seems to have no business winning. In the subsequent election or the one after that, some of those seats naturally fall back to their normal party affiliation. For example, Republicans in 1994 defeated the second most powerful member of Congress in his home district (in iconically corrupt Chicago!). Not surprisingly, that Chicago seat reverted to the Democrats at the first opportunity.

The term “low-hanging fruit” is sometimes used to describe such seats that are, or ought to be, easy pickins for one party or the other. Once you’ve picked the low-hanging fruit, it gets harder to reach the rest.

Thus, the better a party does in a given election, the lower its expectations should be for the next election, other factors being equal.

Newt’s failed prediction was rooted in his (and almost everyone else’s) failure to take into account Republicans’ performance in the elections leading up to 1998. Republicans had done so well in then-recent elections that they were highly likely to lose seats in 1998, even given that the Democrats were hitting the sixth years in the White House.

Consider these calculations based on a party’s gain or loss in the House, as a percentage of total seats, in elections since the development of the modern two-party system following the Civil War.

► Republicans’ performance in 1998, compared to 1996, was the party’s 39th best out of 72 two-year cycles. (That’s at the 44th percentile, which means that the party’s performance was better than in 44 percent of the cases.) Obviously, that’s below average, but not much below average. Given the supposed advantage a party gets from the opposite party being in its sixth year in the White House, that seems like a poor level of performance. Indeed, it is worse than Republicans’ performance in 1918 (Wilson Year 6), 1938 (FDR Year 6), or 1966 (JFK/LBJ Year 6). It is worse than Democrats’ performance in 1902 (McKinley/T.Roosevelt Year 6), 1926 (Harding/Coolidge Year 6), 1958 (Eisenhower Year 6), 1974 (Nixon/Ford Year 6), 1986 (Reagan Year 6), or 2006 (G.W.Bush Year 6).

► Republicans’ performance in 1998, compared to 1994, was the party’s 42th best out of 71 four-year cycles (39th percentile). Not great, but it was better than Democrats did in the four years leading up to the 1926 election.1998 wasn’t what you think

►Look at 1998 compared to 1992, however, and a different pattern starts to emerge. Republicans’ performance in 1998, compared to 1992, was the party’s 16th best out of 70 six-year cycles (76th percentile). It starts to become clear that Republicans’ supposed underperformance in 1998 was partly the result of their previous overperformance.

► Republicans’ performance in 1998, compared to 1990, was the party’s 9th best out of 69 eight-year cycles (86th percentile). The GOP in 1990-1998 had a better eight-year record than they had in the period leading up to 1966 (JFK/LBJ Year 6) and a better record than the Democrats had in the period leading up to 1902 (McKinley/T.Roosevelt Year 6), 1986 (Reagan Year 6), or 2006 (G.W.Bush Year 6).

► Republicans’ performance in 1998, compared to 1988, was the party’s 14th best out of 68 ten-year cycles (78th percentile). The GOP in 1988-1998 had a better ten-year record than the party had in any period leading up to that “Same Party in the White House for the Sixth Year” except for 1918 (Wilson Year 6). The GOP’s record in 1988-98 was better than the Democrats did in any corresponding period with the exception of the leadup to 1902 (McKinley/T.Roosevelt Year 6).

Not coincidentally, the 1988 election was the last before a major change in Republicans’ way of doing things. It was just after the 1988 election, in March 1989, that, by a margin of two votes, Newt Gingrich was elected Republican Whip (the #2 job) and began the final phase of Republicans’ long march from minority status. Republicans, out of power from 1955 to1994, seized the House majority and the Speakership in the 1994 election.

[A side note: More than any comparable achievement in American politics, the election of a Republican House in 1994 was the work of a single person, that person being Newt. John Boehner ran for the House inspired by cassette tapes featuring speeches by Newt; Rick Santorum ran for the House inspired by cassette tapes featuring speeches by Newt; and such was true of Republican candidate after Republican candidate across the country. Without Newt, it’s possible that we would not have had a Republican as Speaker or as a House committee chair in my lifetime. The effort by Newt’s opponents, during the 2012 campaign, to erase this accomplishment from history was truly despicable, an act worthy of the likes of Saul Alinsky.]

[Another side note: There are analogues to the Republicans’ 1998 “disaster” that was mainly a failure of expectations based on a bad prediction. A similar misunderstanding causes people to believe in something called the Business Cycle, which is not a cycle at all but simply a representation of the fact that anything that goes up does so until the point at which it doesn’t anymore. What actually happens is that the economy chugs along until inventories get too big – that is, until production based on predictions of demand gets too far ahead of actual demand – at which point production is cut back.  There’s no real cycle to it, outside of government’s attempt to stimulate the stalled economy, which invariably comes too late to do what it’s supposed to do.  So, except with regard to disastrous intervention by government, what appears to be a Business Cycle is an illusion created by the human brain’s tendency to see patterns where none exist. … But that’s a topic for another column.]

The results of the RINOs’ phobic, play-it-safe strategy for the 2014 election are predictable. In 2010, with the Tea Party movement taking the lead in setting the agenda for the campaign, Republicans had their best election since the 1920s. In 2012, with RINOs running the campaign, they blew it bigtime. What’s going to happen this time, with a number of RINO Senators thwarting Tea Party primary challenges (some narrowly, some with mere pluralities, and one via fraud)? Here’s what Karl Rove wrote in the Wall Street Journal about the campaign for the U.S. Senate:


Republicans shouldn’t pop the champagne corks. It is early. . . . [Among the reasons for not being overly optimistic is] voter intensity. The Pew Research Center asks voters if they are more enthusiastic than usual about voting than in prior congressional elections. In June 2010 Republicans had a 13-point advantage over Democrats (55% to 42%). Last month the GOP had an 8-point lead (45% to 37%). This explains Mr. Obama’s strategy of division: Believing he can’t persuade independents, he hopes to whip his left-wing base into a frenzy emphasizing especially cultural issues like abortion and contraception.

Wow. Grassroots Republicans are thwarted by big-money campaigns that smear grassroots Republicans, and they’re told to keep to themselves their criticism of President Obama’s cataclysmic failures… and, for some reason, those grassroots Republicans are unenthusiastic about the November election. Who’da thunk it?


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