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:

For all the recent frenzy over reducing the deficit, a new poll by CBS News shows that only 4% of Americans consider it the biggest problem faced by the country.

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.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2010, Congress, US Politics
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020.

Comments

  1. Drew says:

    Maybe I’m naive, Doug, but I’m hoping that the seriousness of our financial situation focuses the mind this time.

    As a small government, libertarian wing Republican I was very disappointed at what happened after 1994. Have you ever seen the graph of earmark spending? Yikes! They blew it.

    Washington is what it is, but this may be the last chance to really affect a positive inflection point in government finances before the proverbial shixt hits the fan.

    If not, I guess there’s always New Zealand……..

  2. mantis says:

    Much like 2008, this election was primarily about one thing, the economy. Democrats suffered two weeks ago because they lost sight of that.

    Or because they didn’t magically fix the disaster in less than two years.

  3. ponce says:

    I’m sure they’re going to get right to work on trimming the $1 trillion worth of waste, fraud and abuse from the annual federal budget they kept talking about and the tame press accepted uncritically, right?

  4. legion says:

    Drew,
    Not to be snarky, but yeah – you’re naive. The vast majority of GOP candidates this cycle campaigned on precisely the opposite – they flatly promised to do everything _exactly_ the same as during the early 2000s. Think about every little thing about the economy right now that you hate. The Republicans are _promising_ to give us more of the same.

    New Zealand ain’t far enough…

  5. sam says:

    Preview of things to come:

    Anti-Earmark Bachmann Open To Earmark ‘Redefinition’ For Her District

    Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) hates earmarks. Despises them. On her website, she calls the earmark system “little more than a political favor factory at taxpayer expense.” But when it comes to her own district, she’s in favor of a little earmark “redefinition.” Because what is an earmark, after all?

    “Advocating for transportation projects for one’s district in my mind does not equate to an earmark,” Bachmann told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune yesterday.

    “I don’t believe that building roads and bridges and interchanges should be considered an earmark,” Bachmann continued. “There’s a big difference between funding a tea pot museum and a bridge over a vital waterway.”

    I like the ‘tea pot museum’ reference.

  6. Drew says:

    legion –

    You can snark away……

    This is my real point. For about 40-50 years we (meaning politicians, and those who have voted for them and their grandiose promises) have been able to get away with irresponsibility. We have had an abundant economy able to absorb the stupidity.

    But its over. We need to sober up. So the left can scream tax the rich, but the goose is getting skinny; and taxing the most able at producing GDP/wealth/jobs is simply irrational and suicidal.

    If the new Republican majority spends away, I’ll be in lock step for voting the bastards out. This trancends party or ideology. This is pure finance: numbers. Someone will get the message. And Greece and now Ireland show us what will happen if we don’t.

  7. mantis says:

    So the left can scream tax the rich, but the goose is getting skinny

    How is the goose getting skinny? The rich are much richer than they have ever been, and the rest of us are stagnant or poorer than we’ve been in decades.

    The top-earning 20% of Americans — those making more than $100,000 each year — received 49.4% of all income generated in the U.S., compared with the 3.4% earned by those below the poverty line, according to newly released Census figures. That ratio of 14.5-to-1 was an increase from 13.6 in 2008 and nearly double a low of 7.69 in 1968.

    A different measure, the international Gini index, found U.S. income inequality at its highest level since the Census Bureau began tracking household income in 1967. The U.S. also has the greatest disparity among Western industrialized nations.

    At the top, the wealthiest 5% of Americans, who earn more than $180,000, added slightly to their annual incomes last year, Census data show.

    Median household income was $49,777 in 2009, down 0.7% from a year earlier, a change that was not statistically different from 2008, the agency said.

    “Income inequality is rising, and if we took into account tax data, it would be even more,” said Timothy Smeeding, a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor who specializes in poverty. “More than other countries, we have a very unequal income distribution where compensation goes to the top in a winner-takes-all economy.”

    Among the 2009 findings:

    • The poorest poor are at record highs. The share of Americans below half the poverty line — $10,977 for a family of four — rose from 5.7% in 2008 to 6.3%. It was the highest level since the government began tracking that group in 1975.

    and taxing the most able at producing GDP/wealth/jobs is simply irrational and suicidal.

    Yeah, let’s tax people with no money as opposed to those whose wealth keeps growing and growing and growing. Good idea!

    Oh, and by the way, all those “GDP/wealth/jobs” producers got a huge tax cut a few years ago. That tax cut didn’t help the GDP or jobs, and only increased the wealth of those already wealthy.

    We need to sober up.

    You do, anyway.

  8. Drew says:

    mantis –

    I’m one of those “rich” you screech incoherently about. I didn’t get rich because of the tax code. I got rich because of risk taking, capital employment and talent. I create jobs. More than you have, or could ever hope to.

    Your beef seems to be envy – and creating jobs, employment and wealth be damned.

    In summary, you are loser, sitting on the sidelines bitching like an old women about the winners.

    Good day.