1994 is Calling — Here’s How 2019 Can Answer

Roger Fisk
3 min readApr 24, 2018

Maps shift and pulse with expectation. Breathless anchors dust off the “landslide” analogies and the incumbent party frantically tries to both control and encourage wild expectations.

Yes, this can serve as a snapshot of where we are now with the 2018 midterm elections looming. A narcissistic self-styled Lothario with questionable business activities broods in the Oval Office. Networks are picking themselves up off the floor, re-acquainting themselves with speculation and conjecture, and trying to get their Trumpian sea legs after a calamitous season of febrile, paper thin analysis in 2016.

But it also captures 1994; Time Magazine famously asked if the President, and presidency, was still relevant, and Clinton seemed poised for plucking. Multiple paper cuts from Arkansas land deals and early Cabinet stumbles had him wobbly, and armchair historians mused openly that he did not truly become president until he captured that nation’s sorrow and outrage after Timothy McVeigh installed a distinctly Anglo chapter in our modern profile of terrorism.

Concurrent with that, the GOP committed two errors, and combined those two errors handed Clinton a second term. The Dems in 2018, or perhaps more importantly in 2019, should take note.

First, the smug and simplistic Contract with America was over-shadowed by the bilious leader thereof; Newt Gingrich. Odd byzantine financial scandals involving stamps and the House bank gave an easily understood aura of scandal around the House, and with an aging WW11 era leadership Newt was able to position him as a generational turning of the page. He was outmatched when it came to the government shutdown of 1995, which proved if nothing else that a single, concentrated communications shop in 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue has a considerable edge over the scattered efforts of 535 individual communications staffs on Capitol Hill.

Second, the GOP followed its orderly succession of manufacturing nominees who by definition were losers. With the exception of 2000, and allowing for the quirk of Gerald Ford, every GOP nominee since Nixon only became the nominee after a prior presidential campaign loss. This orderly recycling also skewed their candidate pool older, and by 1996 Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole’s number was up. As the country started the baby steps of living on-line and looking towards the dawning millennium, the aging WW11 veteran they nominated proved the perfect cranky juxtaposition to Clinton’s Teflon Bridge to the 21st Century optimism.

So let’s layer that onto this year; could the Dems win the House this fall and in the process assemble the very constellation of circumstances Trump needs to win re-election? Could their success contain the seeds of their demise?

This question becomes starker when we factor in this; more than any leader in American history, Trump thrives on, and even requires, daily doses of the Hubris Nemesis complex. His exaggerated sense of self requires threats and enemies be ballooned up to proportions worthy of his competition, thus our crime rate is not going down, it is “American carnage,” according to his inauguration speech. Immigrants are not immigrating, they are “pouring over borders bringing crime and death.” You get the picture.

Thus, through the Hubris Nemesis lens, Trump actually NEEDS a Speaker Pelosi so his grandiose visions of himself have an appropriately sized partisan mirror off which to reflect. This means we shouldn’t expect him to veer off his already erratic course simply to help the House majority remain.

He actually needs the GOP to lose this fall. A 2019 Democratic majority in the House will provide the boogie man he needs to elevate into the next cartoonish existential threat, which he will then position himself as the defensive shield against.

This leaves the Dems a task both delicate and intricate; win the House in 2018 but then the leadership needs to take a back bench to member messaging. Every increase in a Speaker Pelosi’s visibility will enhance Trump’s chances of re-election, so raise money, run the House, but lay low. With the possible exception of gun control, the substance of legislating has to tack to the center and focus on kitchen table issues that have a direct relevance to people’s lives. A Speaker Pelosi needs to be felt but not seen nor heard. No Sunday shows, no social media snark.

In short, a low-key Pelosi denies Trump his required fun-house mirror foe, leaving him alone in the bright light of his grandiosity and excessive self-regard.

Then, less than two years hence, we need a nominee that is considerably younger than the incumbent.

In this way we can learn the lessons of 1994 by using them to bring about a different outcome to 2020.