Maybe we should call it Newt’s Revenge: Colin Powell announcing the day after the 1995 elections in no uncertain terms that he is Republican and that his future lies with the Republican party. From his new party’s point of view, Powell’s timing was perfect. It dissipated most of the talk of the electoral results, and truth to tell, the GOP was delighted to change the subject.
Republican expectations for 1995 were sky-high. Although the number of races in this off-year wasn’t significant, or the races all that interesting, Republicans were hoping for and even expecting results that would establish 1995 as a continuation of 1994’s Slaughter of the Democrats. As the Kentucky governor’s race goes, so goes the nation: Realignment, ho!
It was not to be. Here’s what actually happened: The GOP lost the governor’s race in Kentucky. A Republican governor was reelected in Mississippi. GOP hopes for achieving control of state assemblies and senates in Virginia and Missisippi went unrealized The party lost a couple of seats, assembly, but sill has a huge majority; and the takeover of the House in Maine, owing to a death, was reversed when Democrats picked up two seats, giving them a majority of one.
Are you still awake after thrilling account? No matter. Democracts are still jumping up and down with excitement. Kentucky Gov-elect Paul patton, the highest profile Democratic winner, declared, “Kentucky has said no to Newt Gingrich and Bob Dole. Kentucky has said no to cuts in Medicare . . . Kentucky has said no to the ‘Contract with America.'” Domocrats on Capitol Hill emblazoned those words on a chart and posed next to it in the Radio and TV Gallery in the Capitol. Democratic party co-chairman Christopher Dodd gloated, “The GOP’s rising tide has ebbed. . . . If I were the leadership today in the Republican party, I’d be redrafting my idea on Medicare and education, the environment. Becuase if they stick with those messages, I think 1996 is going to be a strong year for Democrats.
“Earth to speaker. Come in, Mr. Speaker,” said New York Democratic Rep. Charles Schumer on the House floor. “The American people don’t want your type of revolution. They want change that makes sense. And yesterday they said overwhelmingly that the speaker’s extremism just doesn’t make sense.” There were few voices asking the unspoken question: Isn’t all this triumphalism for one governor’s mansion — a mansion that hasn’t been occupied by a Republican in decades — and few state senate and house seats a bit much?
That all depends on which Republicans you speak to. The cheerful camp, led by Americans for Tax Reform president Grover G. Norquist, has a cheerful spin. The pessimistic camp, led by Free Congress Foundation president Paul Weyrich, sees dark clouds.
“Take heart,” say the Norquistians. “What exactly did we lose? Okay, we didn’t win the Kentucky governor, but we came the closest we have in 24 years in what once was but no longer is a solidly Democratic state, and as it happens, the Democrat only won by running way to the right of Clinton. Virginia is a disappointment, but probably suffered from inflated expectations, and we did pick up in the Senate. Besides, the lieutenant governor and tie-breaker, Don Beyer, is going to be the Democratic candidate for governor next time. This elevates his profile, but it also exposes him to casting unpopular tie-breaking votes, and that will help beat him in 1997. In Mississippi, meanwhile, Fordice crushed his opponent, the first re-election of a GOP governor there ever. We’re still firmly in control in New Jersey. It would have been nice to keep Maine, md we should have, but we only got it two months ago by a fluke. Besides, we’re going to pick up the Louisiana governor in a couple of weeks, and the party switches are still coming thick and fast. Not bad. We’re still winning.”
“Not so fast,” say the Weyrichites. “The Democrats and their friends in the establishment media have painted this election as a referendum on Newt Gingrich and the Republican Congress, and Republicans have failed to answer the charge. This was a defeat. Democrats knew how important these elections were, coming right in the middle of the budget showdown in Washington, and they threw everything they had at the Republicans. What they threw was entirely predictable, and it was folly not to anticipate and inoculate candidates against it, something that could easily have been done if only Republicans had been paying attention instead of merely assuming that they were riding some great tide of History. This fiasco plays right into the hands of those Republicans who routinely disparage the revolution and work to undermine it. Now they will be emboldened to redouble their efforts to sell us out, and the whole project is in danger of collapsing.”
There is a certain convergence between the Weyrichites and the Democrats, even if the motives are opposing. The message: Revolution in trouble! As for the Norcluistians, the sunny view does comport better with the results in 1994 or, more to the point, the elections in 1993, an off-year in which Republicans actually did clean up. It may not be very exciting to say so, but what we have here is a real mixed bag. Republicans didn’t win; Democrats didn’t lose. But Democrats didn’t win either, nor did Republicans lose. Kentucky and Virginia are not, say, Texas and Arizona — states firmly in the Republican camp. Democrats held on to some things that have long been theirs. The closest thing to a test this year of how Democrats would fare in a Republican stronghold was the New Jersey Assembly. But New Jersey has not been a Republican stronghold for long. And the three seats the Democrats won still left them way down.
Politics is ebb and flow. Republicans just got a reminder that there is nothing inexorable about the movement in their direction. While James K. Glassman is certainly right when he says that the “secular trends” in political alignment are still clear, it does not follow that the electorate consists only of people who want to go Republican starting with the next election. Virginia Gov. George Allen campaigned furiously for a Republican legislature to implement an agenda that Democrats in Richmond had largely thwarted during his first two years as governor. He didn’t get it. But this certainly doesn’t mean that Democrats have thereby rolled up the GOP and that “Republican control is now beyond reach. “Allen, GOP” Lose Battle for Richmond,” the Washington Post headline gleefully proclaimed. But the martial metaphor is a bit misleading, insofar as the GOP “defeat” does not involve surrender; it only means getting readyi for the state elections in 1997, in which Republicans will be in a stronger position than they were in 1995. Next time, if Democrats lose three Senate seats by attrition the way they did in 1995, Republicans take control.
The disappointment of 1995 is that it was not 1994, a year when Republicans shccessfully “nationalized” congressional elections. But still, it’s a little hard to find national meaning in an election that included not a single contest for federfil office. To be sure, Republicans did consider their gubernatorial and state legislative victories in 1994 of a piece with their congressional triumph. But in 1995, all we really have is Paul Patton’s word for it that by electing him, Kentucky has repudiated Newt Gingrich and Gingrichism in all its forms. It’s true that Patton went up with some anti- Gingrich TV spots near the end of the race. But it’s also true that Larry Forgy had left unanswered a number of other attack ads thrit had nothing to do with Washington.
And if Kentucky repudiated the Gingrich revolution, did Mississippi then affirm it by returning Fordice, the Republican? Did a tiny swing toward the Democrats in the New Jersey Assembly really have more to do with Washington thah a surprising, hither-to unsuspected GOP vulnerability in Middlesex County? All these analytical games reveal is that it’s hard to draw many conclusions from these elections.
We may yet get a better test of how well the anti-Gingrich, anti-revolution line is playing. In the January election to fill the House seat of Norman Mineta, the California Democrat who left to take a fat lobbying job, Democrats are trying to cast the election as a referendum on Gingrich. Tom Campbell, a liberal Republican, is getting morphed into Newt much in the way 1994 GOP candidates morphed their Democratic opponents into Bill Clinton. Democrats are obviously field-testing a line of attack they hope to use in 1996. If Campbell loses, we’re sure to see a lot of it next fall. But again, be wary of the spin: Democrats will try to make people believe that Americhns are spurning Gingrich if Republicans fail to pick up a Democratic seat.
It’s odd, but Democrats seem to have applied the venerable Washington principles of baseline budgeting to their political fortunes. With baseline budgeting ing, spending automatically rises every year, and politicians can claim to be cutting spending by making it increase just a little less. Government gets bigger but Congress claims it isn’t. Baseline budgeting is one of Washington’s most pernicious and disingenuous tactics. It was invented by Democrats, and it’s so warped that the whole notion seems to be warping their political judgment generally. Democrats have established the outcome of the 1994 election as the baseline for Republican achievement. So when Republicans fail to win a colossal victory, they lose.
Maybe this is just the Democratic party trying to cheer itself up, spin itself some momentum and rally the faithful for the big campaign next year. Maybe. But maybe Democrats are actually, honestly mistaking their “not losing” for “winning.” This would be amusing. Because if you took the great Democratic victory of 1995 — the one in which Americans repudiated Gingrich and the revolution once and for all — and reproduced it on a national scale next year and for every election thereafter forever, Republicans would be no worse off than they are now and Newt Gingrich would be House speaker until the end of time.
To the extent that the GOP has also been corrupted by baseline thinking, and its activists and party officials hubristically believed that their party’s triumph is historically inevitable, last week’s results served as a bracing slap to the face. The elections arrived at a tricky time for the GOP. Until their legislation is actually enacted — only one part of the Contract with America has become law, 11 months into the “revolution” — Republicans have no answer to Democratic doomsday rhetoric except “wait and see how wonderful it will be.” Some Democrats understand this perfectly well. That’s why they want Republicans to scuttle their own ship — to do what Chris Dodd and Charlie Schumer recommended, to “redraft . . . their ideas” and embrace ” change that makes sense.” Otherwise there will be a Republican budget bill that Bill Clinton will accede to. And in a year’s time, the deficit will shrink, people’s taxes will get cut, nobody will end up starving in the streets — and everybody will know it.
Will the electoral result encourage GOP moderates and liberals to ask for some attenuation of the Gingrich legislative program? Probably. But they are unlikely to get it. The party faithful on Capitol Hill are now more certain than ever that if the GOP doesn’t deliver what it promised in 1994, the reality of 1996 is going to correspond to the Democratic fantasies about 1995: the GOP destroyed at the polls. That’s the sort of fear that gets a politician going every morning.