Déjà vu: 2012/1996

This Presidential election is beginning to look a lot like the contest of 1996, which saw a battered Bill Clinton win a second term in office by defeating Republican Senator Bob Dole. There are differences, to be sure, but the similarities are striking.

Coming into the ’96 election season, Republicans were still in a heady frame of mind. In the 1994 mid-terms, they had taken advantage of Clinton’s sagging approval ratings, swamping Democrats nationwide and taking control of Congress. Claiming a mandate, Republicans declared the President "irrelevant" repeatedly pressing their agenda on the White House. At one point Congressional hardliners even shut down the government in a display of brinkmanship over the federal budget.

Partisanship ran deep, and it wasn’t all based on policy differences. Republican disrespect, and even contempt, for President Clinton was intense, a hangover of the "cultural" wars of the late 1960’s. Right wing media had a field day, spreading lurid stories of alleged Clinton escapades, even implicating the President in assassinations, drug-running, and other nefarious activities.

At the same time, liberal Democrats were none too happy with President Clinton in 1996. Many were still smarting over his passage of welfare reform, a budget deal, and a free trade agreement–”all with Republican support. Some Democrats held Clinton responsible for their losing control of Congress, while others felt that their support for the President was weakening their own chances for reelection.

In this context, some Republicans felt confident that Clinton would be a one-termer. All they needed was the right candidate, though many felt that almost any candidate would do the job. The problem for the GOP, that year, was that their field of presidential aspirants was weak and divided, reflecting the many diverse components of the Republican coalition (cultural conservatives, the religious right, fiscal conservatives, libertarians, etc.). The GOP was looking for another "Reagan" who could unite all these currents, but no "Reagan" emerged.

Early in the race Senator Bob Dole appeared as the frontrunner. Having run for President before, he was a "known commodity". He had major endorsements from the party’s "establishment" and had raised more money than his rival presidential aspirants. Dole, however, was not trusted by many elements of the party’s base, in particular, the religious right. They did not see him as one of their own, and, therefore, eyed his candidacy with suspicion, leading them to look elsewhere for a champion.

For a while, it seemed that Pat Buchanan might fill the "anybody but Dole" role. His strong finish in Iowa and victories in New Hampshire and other early states buoyed his supporters. The "establishment", becoming quite nervous, rallied behind Dole who, after a few more bruising rounds, emerged victorious. The "inevitable" nominee favored by the party leaders had won, leaving the base of the party with no choice but to "settle". They did. They endorsed Dole, but without enthusiasm.

Watching the remarkable ups and downs that have defined this year’s GOP primary season, I see elements of this 1996 storyline playing out. Republicans, heady from their 2010 victory, can taste victory. Their large ideologically driven freshman class in Congress has played brinkmanship with the White House on more than one occasion, though their impact has been somewhat muted by the fact that they control only one House of Congress. They have made no secret of their contempt for this the President and have committed not only to defeating him in 2012 but to rolling back his legislative accomplishments.

Riding high, the Republicans are looking to 2012, but find their field of presidential aspirants to be weak. In the mix of available candidates, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney appears to be the "inevitable" nominee. He is, to be sure, no "Reagan". The religious right doesn’t see him as one of their own, and other wings of the party also appear to lack confidence in his conservative credentials. And so while the Republican "establishment" has now settled on Romney as the safe "known commodity", currents that represent large swatches of the party faithful keep looking for an alternative.

As a result, the race has been in a bizarre state of flux. Back in July of this year, an NBC/Washington Post poll showed Romney leading the race with 30%. He was followed by upstart Congresswoman Michele Bachmann at 16%, Texas Governor Rick Perry (who had not yet formally announced his candidacy) at 11%, and Herman Cain at 5%. By the end of August, Perry, who the religious right believed would save them from Romney and Obama, had announced and his numbers shot up to 38%, way ahead of Romney who had dropped to 23%. Meanwhile, Bachmann, who was now no longer the "anybody but Romney" candidate was fading at 8%, with Cain still at 5%.

In the most recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, the rankings of the candidates have once again been juggled. Perry has been tested and found wanting, and so the new "savior" of the GOP right wing now appears to be Herman Cain who leads the field with 27%, Romney is still at 23%, Perry has declined to 16%, with Bachmann fading fast at 5%.

There are, of course, other Republicans in the mix, and should the novelty of Cain wear off or should his candidacy unravel, they too may get their chance to lead for a week.

But the polls in 2011 tell only part of the story. While the "I’m not Mitt Romney" crowd continues to jockey for popular support, major Republican donors and senior elected officials are mobilizing behind Romney. They have "settled" and are making a valiant effort to clothe their chosen candidate with the mantle of "inevitability". They may succeed, and Romney may yet overwhelm his opponents in the grueling primary process where big money and all it buys (from advertising to organization) inevitably triumphs over the passing fancy of voters. But should he win, Romney, like Dole, may appeal to some independents, but he will at the same time find himself facing the more difficult challenge of winning the support he will need from his own party’s base.

There is, of course, another part of this 2012 story that bears some similarity to 1996, and that is the challenge facing President Obama in restoring hope and enthusiasm in portions of his disappointed and/or disgruntled base. But, more on that later.