Lethal incompetence and indifference in Katrina’s wake. Republican House boss Tom DeLay indicted–twice. Senate Republican leader Bill Frist under investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission. “Casino Jack” Abramoff’s cynical cesspool of conservative corruption. Stagnant wages and rising prices. Quagmire in Iraq. Have Americans had enough? Will Katrina and corruption threaten the right’s hold over Congress and open a broader challenge to the conservatism that has dominated our politics over the past twenty-five years? It’s possible–but only if Democrats can make themselves a compelling force for change.

1994 and the Gingrich Revolt

The last successful effort to nationalize Congressional races in a nonpresidential year came in 1994, when Newt Gingrich and movement conservatives unfurled their Contract With America and shocked themselves by gaining fifty-four seats to take control of Congress, ending forty years of Democratic rule. That election offers pointed lessons for Democrats hoping for a similar reversal twelve years later.

Conservatives like to paint 1994 as a noble campaign run on ideas and values, with Republicans offering voters a concrete agenda and a principled choice. The reality was something different. The right set up the election with two years of unrelenting, scorched-earth assault on the newly elected Bill Clinton. The resignation under a cloud of the Democratic Speaker and minority whip, the indictment of a powerful committee chair and the post office and House banking scandals helped Gingrich paint Democrats as corrupt, arrogant and out of touch.

Gingrich’s Contract With America was a notably cynical document. The controversial social passions of the conservative base–abortion, school prayer, guns–were left out. The Contract promised a balanced-budget amendment to appeal to Perot voters but also more tax cuts. It called for term limits for legislators that few would observe. Most of the measures were poll-tested conservative staples–tax cuts, a bigger military, tough on crime and welfare, plus the inevitable corporate pandering of “tort reform” and deregulation.

Substance was less important than symbol. Republicans had a specific plan that included bold political reform, and they promised to be held accountable. Despite Democratic attacks, most voters didn’t know the details, yet the Contract helped the GOP present itself as a unified party with a positive plan for change.

2006: A Liberal Revolution?

Twelve years later Democrats face a far more forbidding challenge in attempting to nationalize the election. Reapportionment has left fewer contested districts. The political machine built by the right still has no Democratic equivalent. In 1994 the country was at peace. Now the Iraq War–even as Americans turn against it–divides Democratic politicians from their voters. Rebuilding after the Katrina catastrophe blurs partisan differences on the role of government. Yet the potential for a landmark election is clear. The corruption and crony capitalism of the Republican Congress and Administration are sources of unending scandal; it is simply the way they do business. The folks who came to make a revolution stayed to run a racket, and independent voters might well conclude that it’s time for them to go. Moreover, Katrina exposed the tragic costs of the conservative scorn for government, and it brought to public attention the spreading poverty that marks Bush’s failed economic policies.

Just as Clinton and the Democratic Congress’s failure to deliver on a central promise–affordable healthcare–turned voters off in 1994, heading FEMA with incompetent cronies exposed the fact that Bush and the Republicans punted on the central promise they made after 9/11–that they would keep America safe. And the response to Katrina revealed how out of touch the antigovernment crowd is. To defend the Administration’s ineptitude, they sang from the conservative hymnal, charging that the Administration’s failures prove big government doesn’t work (the Cato Institute even called once more for abolishing FEMA). They blamed the victims, or as Linda Chavez, head of the Civil Rights Commission under Reagan, said of those who were stranded: “You are dealing with the permanently poor–people who don’t have jobs, are not used to getting up and organizing themselves…and for whom sitting and waiting is a way of life.” Senator Rick Santorum called for “tougher penalties on those who decide to ride it out.” (He later amended this to exempt the one-fifth of the population in the Katrina disaster area that did not own a car.) But Karl Rove realized this wouldn’t sell, so Bush vowed to spend whatever it takes to rebuild the Gulf Coast, while ruling out any rollback of his top-end tax cuts to pay for it. Conservatives then detailed offsetting spending cuts–mostly in Medicaid and Medicare, as well as other poverty programs–that would only add to the misery of the most vulnerable.

Americans are clearly looking for a way out. Bush’s approval numbers have tanked. Congress stands in low repute, with Republican declines giving Democrats strong leads in generic Congressional face-offs. Pessimism about the country’s course has deepened, along with opposition to Bush’s signature policies–privatizing Social Security, the Iraq War and trickle-down economics. As home-heating bills soar this winter, disaffection with the crowd in power is likely to grow.

Can Democrats Get Their Groove Back?

Democrats are likely to pick up seats next year just by continuing to hammer at GOP failures and corruption. But to engineer a landmark election that dislodges incumbents and marks a fundamental shift, Democrats have to make themselves the party of change, championing an activist government in service to the common good. House leader Nancy Pelosi has stated that Democrats are working up their version of a Contract.

In concept, the task isn’t too difficult. Simply putting forth popular progressive alternatives that contrast with glaring Republican failures would provide a clear platform for change. Central elements could include:


Crack Down on Corruption

: In contrast to conservative cronyism, shut the revolving door between corporate lobbies and high office. Prohibit legislators, their senior aides and executive branch political appointees from lobbying for two years after leaving office. Require detailed public reporting of all contacts between lobbyists and legislators. Pledge to apply this to all, regardless of party. Take the big money out of politics by pushing for clean elections legislation.


Make America Safe

: Commit to an independent investigation of the Department of Homeland Security’s failures in response to Katrina. Detail action on the urgent needs that this Administration has ignored: Improve port security, bolster first responders and public health capacity, and require adequate defense planning by high-risk chemical plants. End the pork-barrel squandering of security funds.


Unleash New Energy for America

: In contrast to the Big Oil policies of the Administration that leave us more dependent on foreign supplies, pledge to launch a concerted drive for energy independence like the one called for by the Apollo Alliance. Create new jobs by investing in efficiency and alternative energy sources, helping America capture the growing green industries of the future.


Rebuild America First

: Rescind Bush’s tax cuts for the rich and corporations, which create more jobs in China than here, and use that money to put people to work building the infrastructure vital to a high-wage economy. Start with challenging the Administration’s trickle-down plans for the Gulf Coast, which will victimize once more those who suffered the most.


Make Work Pay

: In contrast to the Bush economy, in which profits and CEO salaries soar while workers’ wages stagnate and jobs grow insecure, put government on the side of workers. Raise the minimum wage. Empower workers to join unions by allowing card-check enrollment. Pay the prevailing wage in government contracts. Stop subsidizing the export of jobs abroad.


Make Healthcare Affordable for All

: Pledge to fix America’s broken healthcare system, with the goal of moving to universal, affordable healthcare by 2015. Start by reversing the Republican sellout to the pharmaceutical industry by empowering Medicare to bargain down costs and by allowing people to purchase drugs from safe outlets abroad.


Protect Retirement Security

: In contrast to Bush’s plan to dismantle Social Security, pledge to strengthen it and to require companies to treat the shop floor like the top floor when it comes to pensions and healthcare.


Keep the Promise of Opportunity

: Instead of Republican plans to cut eligibility for college grants and to limit loans, offer a contract to American students: If they graduate from high school, they will be able to afford the college or higher technical training they have earned. Pay for this by preserving the tax on the wealthiest multimillion-dollar estates in America.


Refocus on Real Security for America

: In contrast with Bush’s pledge to stay in Iraq indefinitely, sapping our military and breeding terrorists, put forth a firm timeline for removing the troops from Iraq. Use the money saved to invest in security at home. Lead an aggressive international alliance to track down stateless terrorists, to get loose nukes under control and to fight nuclear proliferation.

These proposals are concrete, doable and poll well. They pose a sharp contrast to the priorities of the Republican Congress. Other measures or different framing could be proposed as well.

But gaining widespread agreement from risk-averse politicians–even on a poll-tested agenda–isn’t easy. In 1994 many Republicans thought Gingrich’s Contract was political folly, giving Democrats something to attack when they were down. Most Republican Senate candidates would have nothing to do with it. Some worried that excluding the right’s social issues would alienate their base. The Contract was far more popular with the challengers Gingrich had helped groom than with incumbents.

Those same problems bedevil today’s Democrats. As the corruption of the Republican majority makes headlines, Democrats continue to observe the truce against filing ethics complaints. Rahm Emanuel, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, has even found it hard to get Democrats to unite behind basic reforms that would apply to them, like banning legislators from taking lucrative lobbying posts after leaving office. Calls to invest in energy independence and affordable college education poll off the charts, but Democrats are reluctant to support any large new investments in the face of Bush’s deficits. Democrats who went through the collapse of Hillarycare shudder at the thought of taking on our broken health system. Controlling drug prices is a natural, but the drug-company lobby insures that even the Democratic leadership splits on this question. It is hard to present yourself as a party of change if you’re not ready to break with the present.

Iraq poses the hardest questions. Democrats in office are deeply divided on the occupation, which their base overwhelmingly opposes. If they could, Democratic leaders would deal with Iraq the way Gingrich treated right-wing social issues, omitting it from any common platform, arguing that it isn’t a problem voters expect Congress to solve and that Americans want more attention paid to domestic concerns anyway. But ducking on the war is likely to dismay more than Democratic activists. By next fall the war will have cost many more lives and more than $250 billion. With no compelling domestic agenda, Bush and the Republicans may seek to turn the election into a referendum on who stands with the troops. If they don’t face the issue, Democrats will look like they’re playing politics with the nation’s security. And if they remain divided, Democrats will be hard pressed to say they are ready to lead.

Gingrich was able to pull off the Contract in 1994 partly because Republicans were ready to try anything after four decades in the minority. Gingrich also had built a farm team of candidates who were willing to follow his lead. And he had the support of an independent conservative movement on the march against Clinton and the Democratic Congress. If Democrats are to find their voice in 2006, it will take aggressive leaders who are willing to take big risks and overcome internal opposition as well as a strong citizen’s movement that’s driving the attack against the right and pushing Democrats to stand up.

It took DeLay’s Republicans barely a decade to grow even more arrogant and corrupt than the old order they had challenged. The yet-unanswered question is whether Democratic politicians and progressive activists are as determined and desperate after a decade in the wilderness as Republicans were after forty years.