GOP strategist Karl Rove envisions a repeat of the landmark 1994 midterm elections next year as the ballooning deficit and runaway federal spending rile voters and polls show a shift toward Republicans.
Since Barack Obama’s inauguration in January, he has stepped back from his campaign theme of fiscal restraint and his promise to eliminate unnecessary federal programs, President Bush's former deputy chief of staff wrote in a Wall Street Journal Op-Ed.
Instead, the deficit has exploded from $422 billion to an unprecedented $1.42 trillion at the end of October under the weight of numerous expensive programs. Obama has added more than $1.3 trillion to the national debt, compared with the $1.6 trillion-plus that Bill Clinton added during his eight-year presidency.
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Obama started his administration pushing the controversial $787 billion stimulus plan, his $33 billion expansion of the S-CHIP child healthcare program, a $410-billion omnibus spending program and his $80 billion bailout of the automobile industry. His $821 billion cap-and-trade program passed the House in June but has yet to be taken up in the Senate, and his $1 trillion-plus healthcare program is being debated on the Senate floor.
“An honest appraisal of the nation’s finances would recommend dropping both of these two priorities,” Rove wrote. “But the administration has long planned to run up the federal credit card. Mr. Obama’s budget plan for the next decade projected that revenues would equal about 18 percent of GDP while spending would equal 24 percent of GDP, up from its post-World War II average of 21 percent.
“Annual deficits of about 6 percent of GDP were projected for years to come.”
An October NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll asked voters whether they preferred boosting the economy if it meant larger deficits or reducing the deficit even if it took longer to spur economic recovery. It found only 31 percent chose boosting the economy, while 62 percent said they prefer keeping the deficit down.
A recent Quinnipiac Poll found that 19 percent of Americans believe the president’s healthcare plan will not add to the deficit, and Rove sees the plan as being filled with “budget gimmicks” such as steep Medicare cuts and a 40-percent excise tax on “gold-plated health plans.”
“It’s just not plausible that this Congress will actually cut Medicare or tax health plans the unions have spent decades creating,” Rove wrote.
Rove sees this as significant because 59 percent of voters said they disapproved of Clinton’s handling of the then much smaller $203 billion federal deficit in 1994 just before the Republicans captured both Houses of Congress for the first time in 40 years.
Recent polls have shown an 18-point shift toward the GOP in the past year in terms of generic party preferences, and Gallup now shows Republicans having a 48-44 percent advantage over Democrats going into the 2010 midterm elections. That is up from the 12-point deficit the Republicans had against the Democrats a year ago.
Rove attributes this shift to voter angst over spending.
“The change has been driven by independents, who now favor Republicans by 22 points,” Rove wrote. “By comparison, in the run-up to the 1994 congressional elections, Republicans first eclipsed the Democrats in March of that year, when they gained a 1-point advantage, before falling behind Democrats until fall.”
Other analysts see a repeat of 1994 as unlikely because voters have fresh memories of a Republican-controlled Congress, something that no one in 1994 had seen since the 1950s.
“Today, the Republican Party brand is badly damaged. The period of 2001-2008 was not good for the GOP on either end of Pennsylvania Avenue,” Charlie Cook of the Cook Political Report wrote on his Web site. “Scandals, exploding deficits, obsession with Terri Schiavo and social issues, and a very unpopular war all conspired to send the unfavorable rating of the GOP soaring.
“And unlike 1994, there is no clear leader like former Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., and no clear appealing positive message.”
The dynamics that were in play in 1994 have changed, Cook wrote. That year, 40 percent of the 52 seats the GOP picked up came in open districts, but there are fewer problem districts for the Democrats in the 2010 midterms than there were in 1994.
But further Democratic retirements could turn out to be a wild card next year that could determine whether Democrats lose around 15 seats or more than 30.
“As it stands, there seems to be little chance that 30 to 35 Democrats will lose next year,” Cook wrote. “It would take a dozen or more retirements from marginal districts to lose the majority. So far that has not happened.”
But the facts that turnout will be lower than during the presidential election, and Barack Obama’s name will not be at the top of the ballot, could hurt Democrats.
Pollster Scott Rasmussen recently told a meeting of conservative activists in Washington that the electorate probably will be older, and the minority turnout, lower, in 2010, which makes the political climate more favorable to the GOP.
Cook also sees the ethical problems on the part of leading Democrats such as Rep. Charlie Rangel of New York and John Murtha of Pennsylvania as potential problems for their party, much as the House bank and post office scandals were in 1994 and the Republican scandals leading up to their loss of power in 2006.
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