Republican Opportunity and Danger

Peter W. Schramm

October 1, 1994

Observers of next month’s election agree on a number of important things. The people are cynical. They are angry at an arrogant and unchecked federal government that seems to do more harm than good, and they mean to take out their anger on incumbents. According to an AP poll, only 14% of the electorate trusts Congress to do what is right most of the time, and the term limits movement continues to gain support. In the meantime, Clinton’s approval rating has been low and going lower. Unsurprisingly, Democratic candidates are trying to disassociate themselves from Clintonism as much as possible, and are making the argument that all politics is local. But the voters know, as Newt Gingrich said recently, that psychologically Bill Clinton is on every ballot.

The Republicans, of course, are asserting that Clinton is part of the liberal generation that went mad, as well as an unprincipled opportunist, now talking about family values, now about homosexuals in the military, in a continuing attempt to reinvent himself and his party. But the voters are not buying this sleight of hand. Two years of the Clinton regime have taught them something: This is still the party of FDR and LBJ, albeit now run incompetently. As a result, the GOP claims to have a great opportunity to gain a majority in Congress, as well as winning the presidency by l996. These are matters beyond dispute.

The only thing election watchers disagree about is on the number of seats the Democrats will lose in Congress. Even Joe Klein of Newsweek thinks that they will take "an electoral thrashing." The potential exists for 1994 (and ’96) to be more revolutionary than even 1980 was, when the Republicans won not only the presidency but a majority in the Senate. Will the Democrats lose their majority in Congress, The Big Hit, as analyst Charles Cook calls it, or just take a big hit?

The facts are clear. In the U.S. Senate the Democrats have a 12 seat advantage and the GOP needs to take seven seats to regain the majority they had from 1980 to ’86. Of the Senate seats up for election in 1994, 20 are held by Democrats, and 13 by Republicans. Nine of those seats are open (where the incumbents are not running for re-election, like Metzenbaum in Ohio), six of which are held by Democrats. Three of those are almost certainly going to be won by Republicans: Ohio, Arizona, and Maine; and they have a good shot at two others: Michigan and Tennessee, where the appointee replacing Gore is retiring (Jim Sasser, Democrat, is likely to be re-elected to the other seat). And there are a few Democratic incumbents, including Harris Wofford in Pennsylvania, Chuck Robb in Virginia, and Frank Lautenberg in New Jersey, who are considered to be in jeopardy. Some optimists even claim that Ted Kennedy will lose. Most analysts think that the GOP will gain at least five seats in th
e Senate, and that it is quite possible that they will get the majority.

The Democrats have a 78 seat advantage in the House of Representatives. The Republicans need 40 seats to win control of the House for the first time in forty years. Not only are Democrats unpopular, but Clinton’s inept handling of the presidency makes it more likely that the voters are thinking about retribution. Furthermore, the party that holds the White House has always been at a serious disadvantage during a non-presidential election year. Since l962 the average number of seats lost in an off-year election by the party which controlled the White House is 20 seats. Combine this with Clinton’s unpopularity, and it is certain that the Democrats will take at least a big hit.

No analyst thinks that the Republicans will gain less than twenty seats in the House. The only question is how much more than 20 will they win? I believe that the Republicans will take somewhere between 25 and 33 seats. In other words, the Democrats will take a big hit, but not The Big Hit. But I suspect that the Republicans will not be all that upset because secretly they don’t want to become the majority party in Congress just yet. Why? Because they have not yet figured out what they would do if they were in the majority.

I say this for two reasons. First, it is clear that the anger of the electorate is primarily negative. Citizens are not amused by the obvious incompetence of this administration, and the more they get to know Bill Clinton’s character and turn of mind, the less they like him and the Democrats they associate with him. Their votes for the GOP, therefore, will really be votes against the Democrats. This may be necessary for a Republican victory, but it is not sufficient for the principled revolution that our current political situation demands.

Second, it is clear that the Republicans have not made a solid and comprehensive argument on the basis of principle. They have not yet persuaded the voters to vote for them. It’s true that they’re plenty good at pointing out flaws in the Democrats’ policies, at how much they’ll cost, or how they encourage irresponsible behavior, and so on. But they have not yet made the serious argument that they must make if they want to have the authority to govern toward the honest Republican purpose.

The l992 elections showed this clearly. The people were waiting for the GOP, and Bush in particular, to show their principles. When the voters saw that the Republicans were incapable or unwilling to do this they flocked to a third party candidate, and Clinton won with only 43% of the vote.

Republicans have failed to make the more important argument that freedom is preferable to security. They must re-articulate and re-invigorate the argument that the purpose of our Constitution is to limit the powers of the federal government and its size. It was never intended to be an instrument of redistribution or a tool of social engineering. The Republicans have been as a party unwilling or unable to challenge this liberal ideology that has been the basis of the Democratic Party for most of this century. They have not made the argument that it is not the federal government’s Constitutional role to discourage risk and to guarantee psychological and physical security from cradle to grave. As odd as it may sound, they have to show that the federal government is not designed to be a baby sitter to a people who are so slavish and irresponsible that they can’t take care of themselves. The assumption of American politics understood correctly is that the people are capable of go
verning themselves, and that they ought to. We should once again be willing to stake our fortunes and our sacred honor on this capacity that we have always had.

In the l980s the Republicans were successful at arguing (and they are still doing this in l994) that the Feds should take less of our hard earned money in taxation, but this is the second step in the logic. The first step is to argue that the welfare state is unjust in itself and has the effect of ruining that hardy American character that we have built in response to all the hazards and opportunities in life. That character still lives, and we should fight those whinny baby sitters who always want to do something for us, rather than letting us act like proud and self-governing citizens.

Republican politicians should honestly explain to the American people that, as David Frum has written, "The welfare state is collapsing about our ears, bankrupting the Treasury and corrupting the character of the people." They should do this. But they are afraid of being portrayed as extremists by the liberal elite, so they are timid. They want to be seen as congenial moderates. And they think that the more timid they are, the more popular they are likely to become. But timidity in pursuit of justice is a vice.

The Republican popularity should be based on good politics: make a powerful and principled argument in favor of freedom. They should argue that federal power and spending should be dramatically cut, as well as reminding people of the moral virtues necessary for family life and citizenship. If their opponents disagree, let them respond in kind, and thereby benefit the citizens’ capacity to publicly deliberate over the most interesting and meaningful issues. Otherwise, both sides turn into simple minded trimmers and policy wonks, arguing only over details, while tacitly conceding the Democrats’ assumption and solution to all perceived problems: add more government.

It is likely that this November the Republican Party will make historic gains against the Democrats in both the Senate and the House (as well as on other levels). But the danger is that they will not take full advantage of this opportunity, of this victory. They are given the opportunity to bring principles back into politics. If they do not do this, their popularity will prove to be more fleeting than a lovely day in northern Ohio.

This prospect should remind the party of Lincoln, a party born of principle (thereby killing forever the Whigs, who, when the times demanded it, could hold firmly to no principle) that popularity is not the end of politics. The end of politics is justice, and important principles may and must be inflexible. If the Republican Party compromises the principles that gave it life, victorious though it may be in a particular election, it may well go the way of the Whigs.

Peter W. Schramm is Associate Director of the Ashbrook Center and Professor of Political Science at Ashland University.