Will The Class Of 2010 Repeat The Mistakes Of 1994?
The incoming freshman of the 112th Congress say that they won't repeat the mistakes that Republicans made when they gained power sixteen years ago, but some of the advice they're getting virtually guarantees it will happen if they aren't careful.
The comparisons between the Republicans elected in 1994 and those elected two weeks ago are inevitable, but the members of the Class of 2010 say that they’re determined not to repeat the mistakes that their predecessors made:
The sprawling new class of House Republicans — 84 at last count — arrived in Washington only Sunday, but they’re already discussing how they can avoid being seduced by the capital.
They only have to look back 16 years for a primer on what not to do.
The last big class of GOP outsiders intent on setting off a stink bomb in the clubby capital city is now remembered more as a ripped-from-the-headlines compilation of Republicans laid low.
There are Mark Souder, Mark Sanford and John Ensign, all adulterers of recent vintage. But what’s remarkable is how many other, less notorious, members of the Class of ’94 also carried on affairs or were caught in sex scandals.
Then there was Bob Ney, the Ohioan who served 17 months in federal prison on corruption-related charges stemming from the Jack Abramoff scandal.
And this is to say nothing of the other Republican Revolutionaries who ran against business as usual and went native when they saw the easiest way to reelection was to crack the Appropriations piggy bank. Take former Arizona Rep. J.D. Hayworth, for example, whose fondness for earmarks caught up with him in his Senate primary this year against John McCain, during which he was tailed by a heckler in a pig costume.
So, how, exactly, do these new freshmen believe that they’ll be different from the men and women who preceded them?
Some might say they’re being just a little bit naive:
Many said that the difference between this moment and 1994 is that the country’s fiscal problems are more urgent now and that voters would therefore be more apt to turn them out with haste if they didn’t enact change.
“They came in, and they had the great Contract With America, and, of course, by 2006 you saw what happened,” said Rep-elect and tea party hero Allen West of Florida, alluding to the GOP’s loss of congressional control four years ago. “I think the difference for the class of 2010 is that we’re not going to get 10 years. We have got to turn this thing around in two years or at least start showing the indicators that we’re going on the right track. I think the first 90 to 120 days are going to be very important, and it’s going to set the tone. The American people are not patient right now.”
Rep.-elect Chuck Fleischmann (R-Tenn.) noted that before they even got to the capital Sunday, he and his classmates were already burning up the phone lines, talking to each other about the importance of holding fast to the outsider ethos they ran on — “getting it right this time,” as he put it.
“I think the state of our nation is even much more serious now than it was in 1994, because we didn’t get it right then, and the liberal left took over and really devastated our country,” said Fleischmann, who is taking the seat previously held by Zach Wamp, a ’94-er. “We can’t fail again. Our class is larger, and I think our class is more committed.”
National Review’s Ramesh Ponnuru agrees with the freshman who assert that the 112th Congress won’t be like the 104th Congress. Many of the points that Ponnuru makes are indisputable. Republicans return to power this time after having been in the minority for only four years, in 1994 it had been forty years since the GOP controlled Congress. More importantly, John Boehner is not Newt Gingrich and, based on what we’ve seen so far Barack Obama is no Bill Clinton, the odds that Obama has either the skill or the inclination to engage in the kind of Clinton/Morris triangulation that proved so crucial to Clinton’s recovery from the disaster of 1994 are slim indeed. However, I think Ponnuru misses the point of the elections when he says this:
Eleventh, the public seems more concerned about federal spending than it was in 1995. Back then, the deficit was seen as a symbol of the irresponsibility of the ruling class in Washington, D.C. Now it is seen as an imminent threat to the country’s future. That won’t make cutting spending easy, but it should make it less politically dangerous.
The problem with this part of Ponnuru’s hypothesis is that it isn’t supported by the exit polls:
The results underscored the economic distress defining the 2010 election. Eighty-nine percent of voters said the national economy’s in bad shape — nearly as many as the record 92 percent who said so two years ago. What changed is the direction of their ire: In 2008, 54 percent of such voters favored Barack Obama. This year, 55 percent backed Republicans for the House.
Compounding the political impact of the long downturn, 87 percent remain worried about the economy’s direction in the next year — including half “very” worried. They voted more than 2-1 for Republicans this year, 70-28 percent.
The economy has deeply affected the broader public mood. Sixty-one percent in the national exit poll said the country’s headed seriously off on the wrong track; they supported Republicans by 75-23 percent. More broadly, 38 percent said they expect life for the next generation of Americans to be worse than it is today, vs. 32 percent better — a negative balance on one aspect of the American dream.
Exit polls have had varying “most important issues” lists since 1992 with “the economy” as an issue. This year, 62 percent of voters picked it as the single most important issue in their vote — and they voted 53-44 percent for Republicans for House. It was the first time economy voters favored Republicans.
Health care came back as the second most important issue at 19%. All other issues were in the single digits.
Additionally, at least one post-election poll suggests that the budget deficit and debt aren’t as big an issue for the general public as some in the GOP might think:
Respondents were asked: “Of all the problems facing this country today, which one do you most want the new Congress to concentrate on first when it begins in January?”
56% of respondents said Congress should focus on the economy and jobs 14% said health care, while only 4% said the budget deficit and national debt. Immigration, education, wars in Iraq or Afghanistan, and taxes each got 2%, while 9% said other.
The idea that there’s some kind of broad political consensus for the budget cuts and, yes, tax increases that would be needed to seriously deal with the deficit and the debt simply isn’t supported by the available evidence. That’s not saying that Republicans shouldn’t attack debt and spending issues over the next two years, of course, but the danger they face this time around is similar to the one they faced in 1994. By concentrating on issues that are important to their base, they are in danger of ignoring what’s important to the public as a whole. Much like 2008, this election was primarily about one thing, the economy. Democrats suffered two weeks ago because they lost sight of that. Republicans could suffer a similar fate if they forget why they were sent to Capitol Hill.