1994 Republicans End Long Journey in the Wilderness

Andrew E. Busch

October 1, 2006

This article is the tenth in a series on midterm elections in America.

When Bill Clinton won the presidential election of 1992, restoring unified Democratic control of government for the first time in a dozen years, some observors detected the death of Reaganism and the onset of a long winter for Republican fortunes. Many had forgotten the admonition of congressional scholar Thomas Mann, who had argued in the late 1980s that “Republicans probably must lose a presidential election in order to position themselves to take a majority of the House seats.”

Clinton entered office in a somewhat precarious position, having won only 43 percent of the popular vote in a three-way race. He proceeded to dig a deeper hole for himself by attempting to impose openly practicing gays on the military and ramming through Congress—by a one-vote margin with no Republicans in favor—a budget bill that included a large tax increase. He chose to deemphasize welfare reform, an issue that had helped distinguish him as a “New Democrat” in 1992, while offering a universal health care plan so expensive and so byzantine in its organization that it was easily targeted as a big government boondoggle. The Democratic Congress never brought it to a vote.

In the meantime, that Congress had distinguished itself by a number of scandals and other questionable activities, including the House bank scandal, the House post office scandal, and an unpopular pay raise. The approval rating of Congress fell below 20 percent. Republicans, inspired by Newt Gingrich, became more aggressive in Congress.

As the elections of 1994 drew close, it was clear the political terrain favored the Republicans, and that Democrats had severely underestimated how much Reaganesque limited-government sentiment remained submerged in the electorate. Not least, the 19 percent who voted for Ross Perot in 1992 were leaning Republican on the basis of budget issues and distrust of inside-the-beltway power.

Republicans sought to take full advantage of the political atmosphere by nationalizing the election around the “Contract with America,” a ten-point list of policy proposals that House Republican candidates promised to bring to a vote within the first 100 days of achieving a majority. (Interestingly, Richard Nixon advised the GOP to forego a positive program and simply try to turn the election into a referendum against Clinton.) Those proposals included a balanced budget and balanced budget amendment, tax cuts for families and investors, national missile defense, and reforms like term limits for members of Congress. Polls showed that a minority of Americans actually knew anything about the Contract, but polls also showed that Americans supported the content of most of the planks. By running on the Contract—no matter how many or how few voters had heard of it—Republicans put themselves in a position to claim a mandate for their policies if they won.

For his part, Bill Clinton eventually rose to the bait and helped Republicans nationalize the election by conceding that the vote was a national choice between his leadership and a return to Reaganism.

When votes were tallied, Republicans did much better than most pundits had predicted. They gained eight Senate seats and 52 House seats, putting them in charge of both houses of Congress for the first election since 1952. They also gained eleven governorships, defeating big-name Democrats like Mario Cuomo of New York and Ann Richards of Texas (defeated by George W. Bush), and about 500 state legislative seats and 19 legislative chambers. This gave the GOP a majority of governorships and parity in legislatures.

Republicans in the 104th Congress came charging hard out of the gate, and for most of 1995 Clinton was on the defensive. They forced Clinton to the right on several issues; by the 1996 state of the union address, he declared “the era of big government is over.” In perhaps the two most important policy shifts, Clinton was forced to accept the principle of a balanced budget, and he was forced to agree to a sweeping welfare reform measure after having vetoed it twice.

At the same time, Clinton—with the help of his maladroit opponents—carefully picked confrontations with Congress. Most notably, he allowed the federal government to shut down twice rather than sign Republican appropriations measures. He successfully framed the vetoes and the shutdowns as a moderate President taking a stand against an extreme Congress.

In both respects, Clinton imitated Harry Truman, who had made great use of confrontation with the 80th Congress but also undercut the Republican case against himself by adapting and shifting right with Congress on a number of key issues.

In the end, Clinton won re-election in 1996 in no small part because he lost in 1994. Congress remained in GOP hands for the next decade and has yet to be dislodged, though of course the 2006 elections may change that.

The status of 1994 as the most recent big “change” election has elicited a large number of commentaries on the question of whether 2006 might be another 1994. There are clearly some structural similarities, including the President’s low approval rating, Congress’s low approval rating, and the fact that almost all of the incumbents in close races are from the majority party. Another similarity is that a Democratic takeover of one or both houses of Congress might be premature from the standpoint of its presidential hopes; one can assume that the last two years of the Bush administration will be used by Bush and Karl Rove to confront and embarrass Democrats and lay the groundwork for a Republican comeback in 2008.

Three major differences are also present. First, the barrier to a big shift in House seats represented by gerrymandered districts has grown considerably since 1994 (though Democrats also need fewer seats). Second, in 1994, national security was a very low priority issue for most voters, and the party in power did not have the weapon at its disposal of being able to plausibly charge that a shift in party control would endanger national safety. Finally, unlike Republicans in 1994, Democrats in 2006 have no coherent positive message. This may make some difference on Election Day, and will make a bigger difference after Election Day if Democrats gain control of one or both houses. Republicans, who had to operate with a small majority after 1994, had the advantage of working with a plan already in place. Democrats have no such plan to hold their caucus together. Furthermore, although Clinton tried to paint them as extreme, Republicans could always point out that their program had been vetted by the voters on Election Day. House Democrats, who are almost certainly farther to the left of the median voter than Republicans were to the right in 1995, will have no such cover. Indeed, if they do what they really want to do—try to impeach Bush, cancel all of the tax cuts, and impose a unilateral withdrawal from Iraq—they will have to answer a double charge, that they are both extremists and deceivers.

Andrew E. Busch is a Professor of Government at Claremont McKenna College and an Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center.