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.


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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. anonymous says:

    Well, it looks like its all over. Congress has traded all the cool Plame work for Immigrants and soft money.

    The woes got caught up at NSA with the CIA domestic wiretaps approved by Congress, same as ‘Bush authorizing disclosure’ for a good reason.

    Plame has run ehr course, but its cool to see all the retired ones try to get more mileage out of her retirement party. I don’t think most people want more OOs murdered or trains bombed.

  2. Jack Ehrlich says:

    Anonymous, I would not use my name either if I posted information that revealed I had the mental deductive power of a bias liberal moonbat. Plame was no 00, or any other form of secret agent, who’s identity was very important to any program connected to the U.S. If, note this, her identity was so closely held. Why was her husband allowed to go overseas? To suggest it was unknown the liar, Joe Wilson was married to Valerie Plame, who the liar Wilson often introduced as his wife who is CIA, is ignorant of the truth. Besides, Plames cover had been compromised some years earlier. If the liar Wilson had been captured and held hostage while on vacation in Niger, he could have been used to extract all the secret information locked in Valerie Plame’s mind.

  3. Brian says:

    Again, Contract With America debuted only weeks before the 1994 elections. There is plenty of time for the Democrats. From what I’m hearing, one issue we will use will be access to contraception and the “morning after pill” to help prevent abortions. Vast majorities support this, and it seems to have all the makings of an election wedge issue.

  4. I think what is shaping up is, to use a sports analogy, a big conference game between a team that is long on offense and short on defense (the donkeys) and a team that is long on defense and short on offense (the elephants).
    The republicans have the structure, money, incumbency, district drawing and historical majority going for them. The democrats have lots of passion, an MSM cheering section that fails to report a 6 month decline in Iraqi casualties and the field is ripe for their offense to strike big. Both sides are making some bone head plays (McKinney, Censure, Ports).

    In a way its also about expectations (the over under line). The real prize is control of house, senate or white house (I know its not in play this year, but you can’t help looking ahead to the next game). Anything less than that is a loss. From what I can see, if the democrats weren’t pushing so hard and were in as much disarray as pundits talk about, the republicans would likely come out of the election even or slightly ahead. But the republican’s quarterback is playing hurt (low Bush approval numbers), the republicans aren’t playing to the play book that got them here (smaller government, personal responsibility including congress critters). The expectation that is building for the democrats is they should take one or both chambers. As such, if they fall short of that goal, they may spin it as a victory, but it will likely be seen as a defeat for them.

    On the plus side for republicans, they have much more control of their future. Put forth an immigration bill that focuses on border security and enforcing existing legislation with a plan that they will deal with a guest worker program and the illegals here now when they show they have control of the border would scoop up support for larger segments of the center and right of the country (66+% if you believe the polls). Strong measures on reform, push school vouchers would also be popular with the center and the right. And if the democrats block them, they can make that the campaign rallying cry.

    Face it, right now we are Tuesday morning quarterbacking for next weeks game. Things aren’t lopsided enough to confidently predict either outcome.

    On the other hand, think about what happens if the democrats won one of the chambers. I suspect it would actually hurt them. It would unite the republicans natural majority, the resulting stalemate would likely anger voters for 2008, it would take a little steam out of the middle of the democrats (winning feels good for less time than losing hurts) and my suspicion is that if the republicans lose it will be as much because they didn’t get their vote out (aka put their natural majority in the field) and the resulting anger at the democrats antics will bring them back with a roar in 2008. The danger for the republicans is that if they win in 2006 (keep both houses), than they would be likely to be complacent and fall flat in 2008.

  5. ICallMasICM says:

    ‘one issue we will use will be access to contraception and the â??morning after pillâ?? to help prevent abortions. Vast majorities support this, and it seems to have all the makings of an election wedge issue. ‘

    Yeah that’s huge. It’ll sway about 3 voters in Cambridge.

  6. Brian says:

    Taking a small issue and blowing it out of proportion, swaying many voters, is easier than you think. I won’t mention anything specifically, but I’m sure everybody could come up with a few. Like I said, Democrats have a VAST majority of the country behind them on this one.

    I can see it now: “Congressman John Doe doens’t think you should be guaranteed the medications you doctor prescribed. Why should your medical decisions be made by activist pharmacists?”

    A bit misleading? Sure. But it would likely work.

  7. Brian,

    There is not telling which small issue could catch fire. But I would rather have the structural advantages the GOP has, an economy that is growing and the surveys showing a majority feel they are better off now than 5 years ago than waiting for a small issue to catch fire.

    The real question to me is if the republicans don’t have a few of the large center right issues (not small ones mind you) that they can’t trot out at the right time, get democratic obstructionism going and then plaster the democrats ala 2002. School vouchers comes to mind as an example. And its one that the democrats would likely knee jerk react to in favor of their NAE union to get them to fall smartly into the trap.

  8. Brian says:


    The thing is, these small issues that catch fire are anything but an accident. I’m not suggesting we will wait for one to catch fire. I am suggesting that we will light one on fire.

    Really, I urge Republicans to push vouchers. I think you’ll find they aren’t as popular as you hope.