The Washington Times

“Voter Anger Might Mean an Electoral Shift in ’06” screamed the headline of the lead story in The Washington Post on Sunday. Ah, how it took me back – to a late winter day in 1994 when Adam Meyerson, then editor of Policy Review, called me at my office at The Washington Times’ editorial page to ask me to write an article for him about what would happen if the Republicans won control of Congress that November.

I won’t quite say I fell off the chair at the outlandishness of Adam’s suggestion, but I do recall that my initial impression was along the lines of: well, uh, gee, that seems kind of out there. I wasn’t keen on writing an article premised on something wildly implausible. Republicans, after all, were 40 seats down in the House, and while Bill Clinton and the Democrats were having a rough time in early 1994, such a prediction would put the crystal-ball gazer at some risk of humiliation.

But Adam pressed me on the point, and I said I’d think about it. And the more I looked at the data, the more, indeed, it looked to me like the Republican Party had a serious chance of winning the House for the first time in 50 years. The result appeared in the summer 1994 edition of Policy Review, with the cover line, “Newt Eyes the Speakership.” It’s the first mention in print, by the way, of what would become the “Contract with America.” At about the same time, John Fund of the Wall Street Journal editorial page published a piece similarly speculating that the Republican Party might take over. We were, indeed, out there. And we were right. (I watched the election-night returns roll in at a giddy and raucous party at David Brock’s house in Georgetown – but that’s another story.) What, then, to make of The Post’s offering? Well, I would say that The Post is, to put it bluntly, at some risk of humiliation – far greater than the risk I was running in summer 1994 in Policy Review.

In the first place, my article appeared about five months before the election and was based on the political mood created through the spring, with the implosion of Clinton-style health-care reform and the loss of control of the House over a crime bill. If you’d asked me to speculate as of November 1993 about the macro political climate in November 1994, I would have shrugged at the sheer impossibility of the assignment. Anybody who claims to know what the mood will be one year out is full of prunes.

The second point I’d make is that both Mr. Fund and I were opinion journalists who made no bones about our rooting interest in the November election. I would have been astounded if The Post, or for that matter, The Washington Times, had published a “news” article, even a “new analysis,” in June 1994 concluding that speculation about a GOP takeover that fall “isn’t … completely idle,” as I boldly put it (noting as well that it was “far safer” at that point “to predict continued Democratic dominance”). Yet The Post’s article appears eight months sooner in the electoral calendar as straight news.

To be sure, The Post’s article looks to have been subtly and carefully reported before the editors took over. By paragraph two, the story is already noting poll results showing “significant discontent with the performance of both political parties.” It continues, “Frustration has not reached the level that existed before the 1994 earthquake” – true, good. But “strategists say” – uh-oh, read carefully – “that if the public mood further darkens, Republican majorities in the House and Senate could be at risk.” So, that’s what the headline is all about: The Post has crossed “if” and “could” to produce “might,” and on this rock rests the “Electoral Shift in ’06.” OK. But then the third paragraph goes on to note, “One bright spot for Republicans is the low regard in which many Americans hold Democrats.” According to The Post’s poll results, disapproval of Republicans in Congress is high, at 61 percent, but this compares to disapproval of Democrats in Congress at 54 percent. Democrats have advantages on domestic policy issues and have pulled even in handling on terrorism (a serious GOP decline), but 51 percent of voters say Democrats aren’t offering a clear and different direction, and 51 percent say the Republican Party has stronger leaders, compared to 35 percent for the Democrats.

The Post story itself is actually a portrait of the hurdles Democrats face in picking up the 15 House seats they need to retake the majority (to say nothing of six Senate seats). And so the basis of the “Go Big D!” headline is now – what? Well, let’s just say that the editors’ rooting interest in favor of Democrats in 2006 seems no less heartfelt than Mr. Fund’s or mine was the other way in 1994 – the difference being that we acknowledged it.