Do the Democrats Have a Plan? Part II
The refrain that Democrats may fail to exploit the Republicans’ woes because they have nothing to offer but criticism has become the conventional wisdom. Amy Sullivan tries to combat it in a Washington Monthly piece with the plaintive title, “Not as Lame as You Think.”
It’s understandable that pundits take one look at congressional Democrats today and declare them to be a far cry from the mighty mighty Gingrich revolutionaries of 1994. The implosion of the Bush administration and congressional Republicans has led to speculation not about whether Democrats could regain power but about how they will muff up the opportunity. Turn on a television these days, and you won’t have to count to 10 before you hear, “Where is the Democrats’ Newt?” or “Why don’t Democrats have a Contract with America?”
But the truth is that Newt Gingrich and his Contract loom so large—and today’s DC Democrats seem so small—largely because of the magic of hindsight. Back in 1994, Republicans were at least as divided as Democrats are now, if not more so. Traditional statesmen like Robert Michel, Howard Baker, and Robert Dole were constantly at loggerheads with the conservative bomb-throwers like Gingrich, Bob Walker, and Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas). As for unity of message, the now-revered Contract with America didn’t make its debut until just six weeks before the election; Democratic pollster Mark Mellman recently pointed out that one week before Election Day, 71 percent of Americans said they hadn’t heard anything about it. And while political journalists rushed to hail Gingrich’s genius after the election, before November they were more likely to describe Republicans in terms we associate with Democrats today. “Republicans have taken to personal attacks on President Clinton because they have no ideas of their own to run on,” wrote Charles Krauthammer in the summer of 1994, while a George F. Will column in the fall ran under the headline, “Timid GOP Not Ready for Prime Time.”
What the GOP did so brilliantly in 1994 was exploit Clinton’s weaknesses (his 1993 tax increase, his wife’s failed health-care initiative), as well as the sense among voters that reigning congressional Democrats had become complacent and corrupt (reviving the Keating Five and House banking scandals). Well, guess what? This is precisely what congressional Democrats have been getting better at doing over the past 18 months. And just as most observers missed the coming Republican revolution in 1994, so they’re missing a similar insurgency today.
The underlying premises of Sullivan’s argument are quite true. Newt Gingrich was not given the “genius” mantle until the day after the 1994 election; prior to that, he was mostly thought of in the same vein as “B-1 Bob” Dornan as late-night CSPAN cranks and bombthrowers. While the “Contract” helped galvanize the Republicans and provided a common, focus-group-tested playbook, the public was largely unaware of it, even though it was published in TV Guide. And it’s true, too, that the string of Democratic scandals helped the GOP immensely. Finally, none of us saw the “Revolution” coming. I was in a political science doctoral program at the time and none of the professors or my colleagues, some of whom were actually Republicans, had even the vaguest sense that the GOP could take the House.
It should be noted, though, that some structural events made 1994 sui generis. For one thing, there was an inordinate number (34) of open seats, almost all of which (31) were Democratic. Partly that was the scandals. Mostly, though, it was because of a change in the campaign finance laws that would henceforth preclude Members from taking their campaign warchests with them when they retired. Many took the money and didn’t run. While there are almost as many open seats (29) this year, only 19 of them are Republican. And very few of those seats are competitive because of the second issue: Gerrymandering.
State legislatures are given the constitutional responsibility of drawing Congressional districts, with some limitations handed down by the courts. While this has been going on since roughly the first reapportionment, it has lately become an art form, especially since the advent of computer-aided design. Even since 1994, this has come a long way.
The upshot of all this is that similarities with 1994 should not overshadow the differences.
Do the Democrats have as much of a “plan” as the Republicans had in 1994? Probably not. The Republicans had a two-pronged strategy: Attack Bill and Hillary Clinton and the Democratic congress and nationalize the election by using a playbook of common talking points. The Democrats are using the first of these prongs successfully but it is far from clear what common policy issues they are rallying around.
Sullivan cites the Dubai ports deal, controlled withdrawal from Iraq, opposition to Social Security privatization, and fighting for the socialization of union wages. But the only one of those issues likely to have any traction is Iraq, a policy over which Congress has relatively little control and the president could easily preempt by November. The Contract mostly aimed at issues for which a groundswell had been built by Ross Perot and others over time.
GOP’s Structural Advantage
Do the Republicans Have a Plan?
Congressional Competition: Gone with the Wind?
Do the Democrats Have a Plan?
10 to 15 House Republicans Might Retire. Or They Might Not.
An Election Breakwater?
Control of the Congress: 2006 Electoral Math
Rothenberg: A Good Democratic Year
McCain and Graham Say Republicans in Trouble