Is it, in fact, 1994-95 all over again? The atmospherics are certainly familiar. We have a Democratic president who appears to be tacking to the center to work with Republicans after being battered in the midterms. Jilted liberals, meanwhile, are left wondering how they could have been so blind about the man they fell for so hard. • The Clinton comparison has been much in the air since President Barack Obama's deal to extend the George W. Bush-era tax cuts. But a more apt analogy for the present lies in 1990, not in 1994, and with George Herbert Walker Bush, not with William Jefferson Clinton. • It was in 1990 that Bush broke one of the most celebrated promises in modern American politics — "Read my lips: no new taxes," as he put it in 1988 — in order to control federal spending. In the same way that Obama struck his deal to secure lower tax rates for the middle class and win an extension of unemployment benefits, Bush gave on tax rates to get "pay as you go" rules — meaning that no further spending could be approved without compensating budget cuts or revenue increases. It was the beginning of the fiscal discipline that helped create the budget surpluses of the 1990s.
While Obama's immediate concern is stimulus and Bush's was deficit reduction, both gave way on issues critical to the true believers in their parties. For Bush, it was political death. He had never been fully trusted by a Reaganite Republican base. Like Obama — who is unhappy with his "sanctimonious" left wing — Bush was no ideologue.
"I'm not going to be held up by campaign rhetoric," Bush wrote in his diary early in his term. "If the facts change, I hope I'm smart enough to change, too." Bush privately said that he had no intention of being "off in some ideological corner falling on my sword and keeping the country from moving forward."
He knew that doing what he believed was in the country's best interest could cost him his job in 1992. "Nobody is particularly happy with me," he said during the 1990 negotiations. "The budget is a loser."
But in real time, aware of the consequences, he made the best of the world as he found it. After his election loss to Clinton, Bush wrote to Nicholas Brady, his Treasury secretary, that the budget deal would have helped him if the economy had strongly recovered. "It didn't," Bush added, "and I was the 'read my lips' liar — over and over and over again. I heard it — it killed us." With the base angry and so many others believing the economy was not getting better, Bush faced a primary challenge from the right by Patrick Buchanan and ultimately could not prevail against the combination of Clinton and Ross Perot.
If you play out the 1990 analogy, Obama, like Bush, may be a one-term president. Clinton won re-election because of his political gifts and the improving economy and because he was fortunate in his congressional foes. Bush did not have these advantages.
It is too soon to tell what will confront Obama. If his bill, with its middle-class tax benefits, stimulates the economy, then his compromise on a liberal article of faith may one day rank with Bush's courage under conservative fire.
There are worse things than losing re-election yet winning the good opinion of history. Don't be surprised if Obama makes that very point when he presents the Presidential Medals of Freedom next year. Among those the president has chosen to honor at the White House: a man from Houston, George Herbert Walker Bush.
© 2010 New York Times