Democratic Daydream

Can the party match the 1994 GOP takeover?

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. Click image to expand.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi

Republicans like to think they govern with corporate efficiency. So, could it be that while it took Democrats 40 years of running Congress to become complacent, irritating, and ineffective, the GOP has managed the same task in just 12 years?

A few months ago, it was laughable to think that Democrats could do what Republicans did in 1994 and take control of Congress after the November midterm elections. It’s still a long shot. But GOP members of Congress and staffers treat the idea more seriously now. Only delusional Republicans still think that congressional races can be won by sticking to local issues in Bloomington, Ind., or Trappe, Pa. Republican candidates are going to have to answer for the unpopular Iraq war, and their party’s unpopular president, and unpopular members of Congress, some of whom are under indictment or soon may be.

History is not on the Republicans’ side. The party holding the White House has lost large numbers of congressional seats in five out of the last six second-term midterm elections. The polls also look uncooperative. President Bush’s approval rating hovers at around 40 percent. In 1994, Bill Clinton dropped that low in the second year of his presidency, but his approval rating inched back up to 50 percent before the election. It’s harder to recover in a sixth year of a presidency. GOP officials I’ve talked to expect the president’s numbers to stay in the basement unless Osama Bin Laden is captured. Congress’ approval rating hovers at around 30 percent, the same grim spot Democrats occupied when they were in charge in 1994. When voters are asked which party they are likely to vote for in their congressional election, they pick Democrats over Republicans by 14 points, even though the Democratic Party hasn’t gotten it together on its message. Only 30 percent of those polled by the Los Angeles Times believe that the country is on the right track. That is such a historically low number it’s a surprise Americans even get out of bed in the morning.

The dismal poll numbers explain why GOP leaders are openly revolting against their president over the Dubai port deal. They worry Bush is going to sink them. When I talk to Republicans, their initial anger over the deal and Bush’s veto threat is followed by a recitation of other administration screw-ups that have cost them politically. They can recite the list quickly, like they’re answering a quiz: Iraq, gas prices, Katrina, Harriet Miers. In the House, GOP leaders are running scared enough to whip up a last-minute national strategy called the “suburban agenda”—a group of bills addressing everything from traffic congestion to the portability of medical records to gang violence. These are issues that test well in polls of swing voters and independents, which makes me wonder why they don’t really go for it and mandate better cup holders and bigger parking spaces for SUVs. The president may boast about not listening to the polls, but his colleagues in Congress are pressing them to their ears.

To settle their nerves, Republicans put down the polling data and focus on the battlefield map. It’s hard to knock incumbents out of office, and Republicans have a lot of them. To take control of the Senate, Democrats have to win six seats, which means protecting their own two vulnerable seats and defeating strong GOP incumbents. A House shakeup is more plausible. Of the 435 seats up for election in the House, the consensus is that only about 32 are contested. To take control, Democrats will have to win 15 of the 21 vulnerable Republican seats and hold all of their 11 vulnerable ones. In 1994 Republicans picked up an extraordinary 52 seats—but they had the benefit of 49 races in which there was no incumbent.

Republicans are also comforted by their opposition. The historical comparison between elections disappears when you compare the Republican challengers in 1994 with the current Democratic leadership. The key to Newt Gingrich’s leadership was not his popularity. He didn’t have any. But he had standing in his party. However annoying and uncouth, he’d been toiling to knock Democrats out of the majority since his 1978 arrival in Congress. When he wasn’t railing on the House floor, he was spending his weekends giving seminars to aspiring candidates and building a team of GOP candidates for all levels of government. In return for all that work, Republicans were willing to follow him—moderates as well as conservatives.

Current House Democrats, on the other hand, can’t have lunch without a disagreement. House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi clashes frequently with her second, the more moderate Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer. Party unity is unlikely if those at the top can’t agree. Moderate Democrats describe their leaders as paralyzed by the fear of offending their party’s liberal base. Liberals complain that their leaders have lost touch with their progressive roots. Democratic governors mock their congressional leaders’ national message as being so anodyne and unfocused that it’s meaningless.          

If Democrats can’t come together, their only strategy may be a relentless attack on the party in power. But it’s a mistake to think that bomb-throwing is all Gingrich had going for him in 1994. By this stage in that election cycle, Gingrich was moving past anger, admitting to reporters in the spring of 1994 that talking about the Democratic culture of corruption just made people think he’d “gone nuts.” It was easier for him. Democrats had been in power for 40 years, and their scandals stretched back into the ‘80s. If you were a disillusioned voter, it was clear which party was at fault. When Democrats attack Republicans today for their ties to lobbyist Jack Abramoff, voters conclude that both parties are corrupt. This isn’t because lame GOP spin has worked. Voters just don’t think Democrats are that much more pure.

The 1994 Republicans also had an agenda. For years, GOP candidates had been pushing for a balanced budget, welfare reform, and crime reduction. The themes were so well-rehearsed that anyone paying attention could have guessed what was going to be in the Contract With America when it was unveiled six weeks before the election. The Democrats are planning to confect a contractlike document for this election, but they’re going to have trouble showing the public they’re galvanized behind it.

Because he had Republicans united behind him, Gingrich used the contract to reach out to Perot voters who cared about balancing the budget but didn’t care about issues crucial to social conservatives. Gingrich made fiscal responsibility the lead item in the contract and kept out any talk of abortion, school prayer, or protecting the rights of gun owners. He had the power to convince social conservatives to go along, and the party finished the race on the most broadly appealing, excruciatingly poll-tested message. Today’s Democratic base would almost certainly see such a move as a sellout and another sign of their leadership’s tendency to capitulate.

Just because Democrats can’t repeat the 1994 model doesn’t mean they can’t pick up a number of seats. The Republicans are so sickly right now, even without a plan, Democrats are likely to at least shrink the GOP governing margin. To fight back, Republicans in Congress are going to have to get over their messy feud with the president—fast. To win a national election, you have to rely on your national leader. He’s all they’ve got. Republicans who are quick to point out how clever they were in 1994 should remember one other big lesson of that year. Democrats thought it was enough to attack Newt Gingrich. They were wrong: You can’t simply rely on the weakness of your opponent.