(CNN) – Assault weapons and massive deficits - those are the current battles on Capitol Hill, but they were also a few of the fights former President Bill Clinton faced during his first term in office.
Congressional elections in the middle of that first term didn't go well for Clinton's party. Democrats lost control of the House in 1994 for the first time in half a century. On Friday, Clinton told current House Democrats that those losses haunted him for months, but that he still remembered why some members of his party were successful and many more were not.
"We have to learn something from how, historically, brave actions by your predecessors in this caucus played out in the electorate. When were they rewarded, and when were they punished and then later rewarded," Clinton told the Democrats, who were gathered outside Washington for a three-day policy retreat.
Like the current push to ban assault weapons, the measure Clinton signed in 1994 followed high-profile incidents of gun violence, namely the California Street shooting in San Francisco that left nine people dead and the 1993 raid and siege at the Branch Davidian's compound outside Waco, Texas. That ban expired in 2004.
President Barack Obama is pressing Congress to pass a new assault weapons ban after December's deadly shooting at a Connecticut elementary school. Its passage is far from certain – many Republicans and some pro-gun Democrats oppose the measure. Legislation ramping up background checks is considered more likely to gain approval from Congress.
Clinton also wrestled with ballooning deficits during his first term, a problem that he solved in part by raising taxes on the wealthiest 1.2% of taxpayers. No Republicans voted for the measure when it passed Congress in 1993. Obama faces a similar struggle with GOP lawmakers, who argue that spending cuts are best way to reduce the federal deficit.
But Obama has also struggled to convince House Democrats – mindful of re-election fights every two years - that compromise measures including both tax increases and spending cuts are the way to go.
Clinton told those Democrats Friday that lawmakers who voted for his gun law and tax increase –and who later lost - were on his mind for months after the 1994 trouncing.
"I can't tell you how many nights – countless nights in the White House, every single night before I went to bed, for months and months and months after the 1994 election - I thought about the people who were defeated because they voted for the economic program, or who were defeated because they voted for the assault weapons ban," Clinton recalled. "And I thought a lot about those who survived and those who didn't."
Part of his motivation in working so hard for Democrats in midterm elections stems from those losses nearly two decades ago, Clinton said.
"I don't want it on my conscience. I did this in 1994 and I never want to live through it again without knowing that at least I got mowed down without taking a pass."
He advised later that the way to endure tough political fights was to embrace Americans not typically in the Democrats' target demographic, and to devise a platform that is affirmative, rather than simply a better alternative to Republicans.
"We're going to be fine, but we've got to learn to compare ourselves to the competition in a way that is not threatening and is not negative," Clinton said.
"Do it all in the same sprit that you took out there in this last election, and I think you're going to be fine," he continued. "It's a great time to be in public service. There's no reason to be negative about the future. But now that you won this race, that was a referendum in a large measure on what the American people did not want, we have to create a future that they do want."