Opinion: History hangs over the shoulder of Democrats

The Tea Party's anger over Obamacare helped Republicans in Georgia beat former U.S. Rep. Jim Marshall in the 2010 midterms.
 Jason Getz jgetz@ajc.com

Credit: jgetz@ajc.com

Combined ShapeCaption
The Tea Party's anger over Obamacare helped Republicans in Georgia beat former U.S. Rep. Jim Marshall in the 2010 midterms. Jason Getz jgetz@ajc.com

Credit: jgetz@ajc.com

As Democrats in Congress try to forge the details of a massive $3.5 trillion tax and social spending package in coming weeks, party leaders will be asking their rank-and-file members to do something that hasn’t happened too often on Capitol Hill in recent years —approve a major legislative package which includes tax increases.

The last two times Democrats did that — in 1993 to deal with the budget deficit, and 2010 with the Obama health law — the voters took out their frustrations on the party in the very next midterm election for Congress.

In 1993, Democrats narrowly pushed through an almost $500 billion, five-year deficit reduction plan from President Bill Clinton — boosted by the tie-breaking vote of Vice President Al Gore, and the support of freshman House Democrats including U.S. Rep. Don Johnson of Georgia.

While the plan helped produce budget surpluses a few years later, the immediate voter reaction was punishing for Democrats.

“We all got our heads handed to us in the 1994 election,” Johnson noted years later, as Democrats lost control of the U.S. House, propelling Georgia’s Newt Gingrich into the post of Speaker.

Georgia Democrats lost three U.S. House seats in the aftermath of that 1993 budget vote, as Johnson and George ‘Buddy’ Darden were defeated, while future GOP Senator Saxby Chambliss picked up another Democratic seat for the GOP.

For years, state Republicans openly chortled about Johnson’s loss, saying it showed how they could put political pressure on vulnerable Democrats — and then defeat them in the next election.

The next time Democrats tried something big was in 2010, when they approved the Affordable Care Act.

That generated the Tea Party backlash which cost Democrats their House majority.

WASHINGTON, DC -- Former Democratic congressman Jim Marshall was defeated in 2010.

Credit: COX

Credit: COX

It didn’t matter that conservative Democrats like U.S. Rep. Jim Marshall of Georgia voted against the Obama health law that year. Republicans ousted Marshall and won 63 seats in the 2010 midterms from Democrats — the biggest shift since 1948.

Certainly, no one can predict how voters will react in 2022 — but the recent shadow boxing of more moderate Democrats such as U.S. Rep. Carolyn Bourdeaux, D-Suwanee, brings back echoes of those earlier legislative fights.

“We owe it to our children to make sure we aren’t saddling them with generations of debt,” Bourdeaux said in late August, as she tangled with her own leadership over how best to proceed on infrastructure and this larger budget reconciliation package.

Bourdeaux’s moves and arguments in 2021 aren’t too far away from those of Don Johnson in 1993 and Jim Marshall in 2010.

The puzzle for Democrats is how to get this $3.5 trillion plan through Congress and onto President Biden’s desk — and then try to make sure lawmakers such as Bourdeaux survive in 2022.

Jamie Dupree has covered national politics and the Congress from Washington, D.C. since the Reagan administration. His column appears weekly in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. For more, check out his Capitol Hill newsletter at http://jamiedupree.substack.com

About the Author