During the debate over welfare reform that consumed much of 1995 and 1996 in Congress, those who generally supported the Republican approach (ending the welfare "entitlement," imposing work requirements) had a very strong hand. Polls had consistently shown voters hated no-strings welfare. Even the Democratic president blamed welfare for sustaining a "culture of poverty." It would have been a minor feat of parliamentary skill for Republicans to somehow not reform welfare in this situation.
Yet they almost pulled it off. One reason was politicians like John Mica. During one of the early debates, Mica, a GOP representative from Florida, brandished a sign reading "Don't Feed the Alligators" to illustrate his argument that "unnatural feeding and artificial care creates dependency." A Wyoming congresswoman promptly compared welfare recipients to similarly dependent "wolves." You could debate the aptness of these attention-getting zoological metaphors, but they gave Democratic entitlement-defenders such as Barney Frank an opening to portray reformers as inhuman, disrespectful, possibly racist nutcases. Fortunately for Republicans, by the time the welfare debate resumed in 1996 they'd learned to leave the animals out of it. Reform passed convincingly.
Shorter version: Republicans toned it down, and that helped them win.
Which leads me to wonder: if the current frenzy for "civility" means Republicans have to take the sharp edges off their Tea Partyish rhetoric, will that really help Democrats? Democrats may think so. Byron York speculates that they're quietly congratulating Obama for raising the civility issue in his Tucson address even as he denied that incivility had anything to do with the shooting—a strategy Obamaphile Jon Alter had advocated before the speech. Boy, did it make Palin look bad! What's more, just when the number of GOP representatives is about to dwarf the number of Democrats who'll be listening to the State of the Union address, there's MSM momentum behind the idea that the parties should sit in an interspersed jumble so viewers won't be able to tell. Brilliant! Republicans are in a position to be mean to Democrats, and there's suddenly a campaign against meanness. What a happy coincidence!
But, like many seemingly clever, intuitive MSM/Dem strategies—"Let's nominate a Vietnam war hero to run against President Bush!"—this one may prove to be a dud, or worse. There's a reason, after all, why the White House has consistently attacked and therefore elevated relatively intemperate Republican figures such as Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck—making them the public faces of the GOP. The reason is that wild Beckish rhetoric turns off independent and moderate voters. For the same reason, the White House has always seemed to kind of like having the Birthers around. They're a great foil.
Why would Republican politicians ever fall into this "too hot" trap? Because hot rhetoric gins up their base. But now that they've won the House in an off-year election, GOP pols don't need to please the base so much. They need the middle. They need swing congressmen to vote for their bills and they need supportive poll numbers to encourage those congressmen to do so. If a "civility" crusade succeeds in getting the most volatile Republicans to cool it and stop irritating the center, it won't be doing Obama's work for him. It will be doing John Boehner's work for him.
You could easily see a rhetorically modulated GOP achieving much more in the way of health-care reform rollback, Social Security cuts, immigration enforcement, and educational choice than a GOP that insists Obama is a liar, a socialist, and un-American, that Social Security is a Ponzi scheme, that illegal immigrants are mostly gangbangers, etc. There's a reason the slicker Tea Partiers (Ron Johnson, Rand Paul) won in 2010 while the jagged ones (Sharron Angle, Christine O'Donnell) lost. It's not because Rand Paul is moderate in substance. It's because he's not a John Mica.
True, none of the GOP's current issues is precisely analogous to welfare. Welfare reform was a political slam-dunk, and, once it passed, the paleoliberals who'd defended the old AFDC program seemed to vanish into the mists like mastodons. In contrast, GOP immigration enforcement measures (e.g., requiring businesses to check new hires) and education reforms (like charter schools) have stronger opponents who aren't going to go away. But that only makes it more important for Republicans not to give them any extra lines of attack.
P.S.: Civility = Triangulation? It's also true that Obama and Boehner aren't playing a zero-sum game. In 1996 the net result of passing welfare reform was a big win for Newt Gingrich and a loss for congressional Democrats—but also a big reelection victory for President Clinton. Similarly, civility may both make Obama look good and give Boehner a legislative edge. The result: Obama winds up signing new laws that are more conservative than he might like, just as he wound up signing a lame-duck bill that preserved the Bush tax cuts. As with the lame-duck tax bill, these concessions to Boehner (and Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell) are likely to boost the president's poll numbers while leaving Nancy Pelosi and the relatively liberal congressional Democratic caucus seething.
Civility won't hurt all Democrats, then. It could help Obama. But don't expect congressional Democrats—or all the liberal bloggers and columnists currently demanding that "partisans ... think twice before over-heating their rhetoric"-—to be happy about it ... 3:56 a.m.