Republican Revolution Redux

Washington Matters

Republican Revolution Redux

Republicans haven't said so -- and they may not even realize it yet -- but they seem to have settled on a new direction for the party -- an old one. Numerous signs -- including the re-emergence of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich as a party thinker, leader and attack dog -- point to trying to duplicate the 1994 Republican Revolution.

It won't be easy to capture lightning in a bottle a second time and the political landscape is far less favorable. But Democrats learned 12 years ago the dangers of underestimating the GOP and how quickly political fortunes and public sentiment can shift.

There are some striking parallels in the circumstances, issues and early strategies of the GOP in opposition to President Obama and the Democrats now and to President Bill Clinton in 1993. Consider:

  • Republicans are seizing upon tax increases and gun control issues to mobilize important parts of their base.It also is planning to go after Obama's Supreme Court nominee, apparently no matter who it is.
  • Efforts are being made to demonize Democratic leaders, especially House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for her dust-up with the CIA. They also are trying to cast an image of the party as overly comfortable with the trappings of power by going after Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., and other Democrats at different levels of government on ethics issues, to try to suggest a party tainted by corruption. Just as he did in his rise to power, Gingrich is merciless in his attacks."She is a trivial politician, viciously using partisanship for the narrowest of purposes, and she dishonors the Congress by her behavior," is one of his milder rebukes of Pelosi. It's also very similar to the way he took on former House Speaker Jim Wright, whose dethroning helped advance Gingrich's career and reputation as a giant killer: He once referred to Wright as having a "Mussolini-like ego."
  • In 1994 Republicans tried to cast Democrats as the party of big government and a nanny state that would substitute its judgment for that of individuals. This year they are relying heavily on the damning sounding word "socialist."
  • The biggest similarity of all may be that what the GOP hopes will be one if its biggest cudgels this year was one of its most effective in 1994, health care reform. "Hillarycare" was held up as bureaucratic excess of the worst sort. Even though a Democratic plan has yet to be proposed, Republicans are already busily mining the same vein: "A committee of Washington bureaucrats will establish the standard of care for all Americans," is how political consultant Frank Luntz phrased the message in a memo to GOP senators. And if Luntz's name sounds familiar that's because he worked closely with Gingrich in fashioning the core message of the 1994 revolution.

There's another similarity that Democrats better keep in mind if they are tempted to think they are in far better position than 12 years ago and believe the GOP is in utter disarray. It looked a lot like that in 1993, too, right down to Republicans blaming one another and fighting over the party's direction following an  unpopular president named Bush.

That said, Republicans had best not get overly excited. There are a lot of fundamental differences.

Democrats are making big gains across the country. The number of voters identifying themselves as Republican has slipped to well under 30% while the number of self-identified Democrats has soared. Democrats are also making big inroads geographically, eroding the GOP's power base in the South, West, Midwest and suburbs and exurbs while solidifying their base in urban areas, the Northeast and the West Coast.

Plus the Democratic establishment that Gingrich overthrew was deeply entrenched and had weathered multiple corruption scandals. Republicans have been out of power in the House only since 2006 -- after a dozen years in control -- and they were bounced in part because they were seen as overly comfortable in power, not very adept at governing and had their own share of scandals.

The most fundamental difference, however, may be the situation the country finds itself in. In 1993, the Cold War had ended and the United States had just won the Gulf War. Clinton inherited an economy that was hurting but emerging from a recession. Obama, of course, is dealing with the two longest wars in U.S. history and a country still in a deep recession and facing other economic problems. Health care is a far bigger mess than it was a decade ago and it is an even deeper concern for a broader cross-section of many Americans.

Americans were frustrated and furious in 1994 and the GOP channeled that anger against the Democrats. Some Americans are angry, but far more are stressed and worried -- and as of now, many are pleased with the direction the country is taking under Obama. Obama's message of unity and bipartisanship is still smiled upon by many. The independent and Democratic voters that Republicans will need if they have any chance of gaining serious ground next year appear to have had their fill of opposition and anger for a while. Will Republicans be able to offer them anything else?