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.