A pivot to the center (and re-election) would be easier without the House speaker.
By FRED BARNES
In Washington these days, President Obama is rumored to be hoping Republicans capture the House of Representatives in the midterm election in November. There’s no evidence for this speculation, so far as I know, but it’s hardly far-fetched. If Mr. Obama wants to avert a fiscal crisis and win re-election in 2012, he needs House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to be removed from her powerful post. A GOP takeover may be the only way.
Given the deficit-and-debt mess that Mr. Obama has on his hands, a Republican House would be a godsend. A Republican Senate would help, too. A Republican majority, should it materialize, could be counted on to pass significant cuts in domestic spending next year—cuts that Mrs. Pelosi and her allies in the House Democratic hierarchy would never countenance.
Though Mr. Obama’s preferred solution to his fiscal predicament would probably be a very large tax increase, it’s a nonstarter. He needs spending cuts to assuage both markets and voters. It was the surge in spending—the stimulus, omnibus budget and the health-care legislation—that prompted the tea party protests, alienated independent voters, and caused the rapid decline in his popularity.
The test is whether Mr. Obama can restrain nondefense discretionary spending. That’s the spending over which Washington exerts the greatest control. Even small cuts in entitlement spending are difficult to enact, but the president and Republicans might reach agreement there as well. That would be a political bonus for Mr. Obama, softening his image as a tax-and-spend liberal. Again, this would be impossible if Ms. Pelosi still runs the House.
Over the past 50 years, it should be no surprise which president has the best record for holding down discretionary spending. It was President Reagan. But who was second best? President Clinton, a Democrat. His record of frugality was better than Presidents Nixon, Ford and both Bushes. Mr. Clinton couldn’t have done it if Republicans hadn’t won the House and Senate in the 1994 election. They insisted on substantial cuts, he went along and then whistled his way to an easy re-election in 1996.
Here are the numbers: Average nondefense discretionary outlays per year under Nixon and Ford increased 39.7% over those of Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, followed by another 39% boost under Mr. Carter, a 14% drop under Mr. Reagan, a 12% jump under the first Mr. Bush, a 7.6% hike under Mr. Clinton, and a 31.2% increase under the second Mr. Bush.
Only four times in the past half century have nondefense discretionary expenditures in real terms decreased in a two-year congressional cycle. And only Reagan’s first Congress—controlled by Democrats—cut more (15.5%) than the Republican Congress that Mr. Clinton faced after the 1994 election (3.7%). The other two reductions came under Reagan (2.5%, the 1986-87 budgets) and the younger Mr. Bush (.01%, the 2006-07 budgets).
If defense spending, which is also discretionary, is included, the result is the same. Mr. Clinton, working with a Republican majority, is second to Reagan. And in his new book, “Never Enough, America’s Limitless Welfare State,” William Voegeli of the Claremont Institute found that “welfare state” spending since FDR increased less under Mr. Clinton than under any president except Reagan.
Let’s assume Mr. Obama recognizes that the fiscal and economic peril facing the country because of trillion dollar deficits is a problem for him as well. At the moment, the 10-year deficit tab is pegged to be as low as $6 billion (Congressional Budget Office) or as high as $13 trillion (Heritage Foundation). Either way, the public is alarmed.
Mr. Obama’s re-election to a second term is heavily dependent on his ability to deal effectively with the fiscal mess. He could try to push a big tax hike, like a value-added tax, through a lame duck Congress after the November election. But that’s very much a long shot. Besides, higher taxes—on top of those from expiration of the Bush tax cuts—could infuriate voters all the more.
For Mr. Obama, serious spending cuts are the only sensible means of dealing with a potential debt crisis or at least an unsustainable fiscal situation. However, he may not be able to rely on reductions in military spending, as liberal Democrats usually prefer. Mr. Obama has already included deep defense cuts in his budget, and Republicans are unlikely to go along with even deeper cuts.
Mrs. Pelosi won’t be any help. She’s committed to enacting the Democratic Party’s entire liberal agenda, and next to the president she is the most powerful person in Washington. When the president flirted with scaling back his health-care bill last January, Ms. Pelosi stiffened his spine, and the bill passed. As long as she is House speaker, bucking her would be painful, especially if Mr. Obama proposes to eliminate a chunk of the spending she was instrumental in passing in 2009 and 2010.
But if Republicans win the House, everything changes. Mrs. Pelosi’s influence as minority leader would be minimal—that is, assuming she’s not ousted by Democrats upset over losing the majority.
Mr. Obama would be in a position to make his long-awaited pivot to the center. With Republicans in charge, he’d have to be bipartisan. He’d surely have to accede to serious cuts in spending—even as he complains they are harsh and mean-spirited. Mr. Obama could play a double game, appeasing Democrats by criticizing the cuts and getting credit with everyone else by acquiescing to them.
Mr. Clinton did this brilliantly in 1996. He fought with Republicans over the budget, winning some battles, losing others, as he lurched to the center. He twice vetoed Republican welfare reform bills, then signed a similar measure. He was hailed as the president who overhauled the unpopular welfare system.
In recent months, the president has met repeatedly with Mr. Clinton. We can only guess what they talked about. But given Mr. Clinton’s own experience, I suspect he suggested to Mr. Obama that Republicans could be the answer to his political prayers. In 1994, Republicans freed the president from the clutches of liberal Democratic leaders in Congress. In 2010, they can do it again.
Mr. Barnes is executive editor of the Weekly Standard and a commentator on Fox News Channel. Weekly Standard intern Peyton Miller provided research for this article.