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Obama braces for a Republican takeover, with 2012 in his sights

U.S. President Barack Obama waves as he arrive to speak at a rally for U.S. Senator Harry Reid at Orr Middle School Park in Las Vegas, Nev., October 22, 2010.


The Republican nominee for the Senate in Colorado, Ken Buck, has a warning for anyone expecting him to play nice if he makes it to Congress.

"When it comes to spending, I'm not compromising," the Tea Party-backed candidate roared this week. "I don't care who, what, when or where - I'm not compromising."

In a year when venting untamed fury is the new national pastime, reasonable politicians only come off as weak-kneed. The feminine touch in politics used to mean consensus building. Now, it's the deadly swipe of the mama grizzly.

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Nevada GOP Senate nominee Sharron Angle encapsulated the obstreperous mood of Republicans running in the Nov. 2 midterm elections when she commanded her Democratic opponent Harry Reid to "man up!"

The phrase has caught on. Even some Democrats are now using it - just so they sound tough. And the macho vernacular is only a prelude to the gladiator warfare likely to animate the 112th Congress.

If this all sounds vaguely familiar, it's because it is.

The 1994 midterms are top of mind for leading operatives in both political parties right now. As then, revolutionary-minded Republicans are once again poised to replace Democrats as the majority party in the House of Representatives. While the GOP is less likely to gain the 10 Senate seats it needs to take control of the upper chamber, it should come close enough to render the Democratic leadership nearly powerless.

How Republicans use their influence, and how President Barack Obama responds, will shape the contours of 2012 presidential contest, Mr. Obama's legacy and the future of the GOP. As they plot their agendas for 2011, both sides are looking back in time for lessons from 1994.

Mr. Buck, who maintains a razor-thin lead in the polls over Democratic incumbent Michael Bennet, sounds much like Newt Gingrich did after the GOP's landslide win that year. Then, Mr. Gingrich saw the victory as a sweeping mandate to cut, cut and cut.

"I don't care what the price is," the then-House of Representatives Speaker insisted in 1995 as he refused to compromise with then-president Bill Clinton on a budget deal. "What we are saying to Clinton is: Do not assume that we will flinch, because we won't."

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They didn't. Mr. Gingrich preferred to shut down the federal government - twice - rather than dilute GOP proposals for tax and spending cuts. It backfired terribly. Mr. Clinton was able to portray the Republican majority in Congress as a rigidly ideological crew of corporate handmaidens. The GOP was forced to change its tune and work with Mr. Clinton.

It's not clear who put more water in their wine. But, by 1996, it didn't matter. The earlier clash had revived Mr. Clinton's presidency and helped ensure his re-election. He even got most of the credit for the balanced budget agreement the GOP had fought for.

Cognizant of the past, a group of ambitious, policy-oriented Republicans who call themselves the "Young Guns" are quietly calling for constructive dialogue with Democrats to avoid a repeat of 1995. But their voices risk being overwhelmed by the hordes of Tea Party-backed freshmen in Congress who, like Mr. Buck, promise a take-no-prisoners approach.

"These guys want a revolution in this country," Rice University presidential historian Douglas Brinkley noted in an interview. "This is not a fight for the centre between Clinton and middle-of-the-road Republicans. There is a larger drama going on about whether the country wants to make a tilt towards the hard right."

One of the first tests will come even before the new Congress convenes in January. A bipartisan commission Mr. Obama has tasked with coming up with a plan to reduce the $13.6-trillion national debt is set to table its recommendations on Dec. 1. How the President and the GOP - for now, led by Ohio congressman John Boehner in the House and Kentucky's Mitch McConnell in the Senate - respond to the report will set the tone for the second half of Mr. Obama's mandate.

A second test will come in early 2011, when Congress must approve an increase in the debt ceiling, which currently stands at $14.3-trillion. Nothing will test the resolve of the Tea Partiers more than being asked to countenance more borrowing.

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House Republicans' Pledge to America campaign platform, a pale imitation of Mr. Gingrich's Contract with America, suggests the GOP is not as hell bent on slashing spending as Mr. Boehner insists it is. Unfortunately for him, the Tea Partiers set to join him in the House are dead serious.

What's more, if Mr. Buck, Ms. Angle, Utah's Mike Lee, Florida's Marco Rubio, Kentucky's Rand Paul and Pennsylvania's Pat Toomey all make it the Senate, they will give a far more radical edge to the GOP caucus than Bob Dole ever had to contend with as Senate majority leader after the 1994 midterms. These would-be senators insist on cutting or privatizing entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare, slashing taxes and eliminating the federal Education Department altogether.

For Mr. Obama, whose promise of post-partisanship in Washington now seems to have been a cruel joke, Clinton-like triangulation is hardly in his heart. He won the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008 in part because he scorned the Clinton era as a wasted opportunity for liberals. Instead, he praised Ronald Reagan for sticking to his guns and actually transforming the country in his image.

American University historian Allan Lichtman offers another model for Mr. Obama to emulate if he winds up with a Republican Congress. Harry Truman found himself in that position in 1946, but refused to back down.

"Harry Truman stuck to his principles and came out with an aggressive Fair Deal program. He didn't get most of it through, but he was able to run [in 1948]against a do-nothing Republican Congress," Prof. Lichtman explained. "Obama's a liberal and he's got to be true to that. And he should not underestimate Republicans ability for self-destruction."

The prospect of gridlock in Congress might lead Mr. Obama to shift his emphasis from domestic to foreign policy, Prof. Brinkley suggested, injecting renewed dynamism into his presidency. He could similarly opt to use his executive powers more broadly, instead of turning to Congress to adopt his policy preferences.

"What might be seen as a loss for Obama might actually be a gain," Mr. Brinkley said of a midterm victory by hard-right Republicans. "The narrative is going to be set for [Mr. Obama's]resurrection, because that's the way you guys in the media do it."

At the mid-point of Mr. Obama's first term, with his approval rating hovering in a low-forties danger zone, everything appears to be conspiring for such an outcome. After raising expectations, White House staff now claim to aim low. What better way to dazzle Americans with "Obama 2.0" - as one aide put it to The New York Times - when he is unveiled in early 2011?

Then again, no President has ever had to reckon with a Tea Party Congress. If its members gain traction, Mr. Obama is in trouble. They make Newt Gingrich look reasonable.

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About the Author

Columnist Konrad Yakabuski writes on politics, policy and business for The Globe and Mail’s Comment section and Report on Business. More

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