Later this year we’re going to celebrate the fifteenth anniversary of the “Contract with America,” the now famous document which was used by Congressional Republicans to win a majority in both houses of Congress in the 1994 election.
While the Democrats were able to wrest back control of the U.S. Senate at times in the years that followed, the House stayed in GOP hands for twelve straight years. Then in 2000 George W. Bush won the White House. Republicans proved they could win power. Unfortunately, they also proved they didn’t know how to use that power to advance an agenda.
We all know the sad story — Republican office holders and their staffs in Washington squandered an amazing opportunity to bring true domestic policy reforms and remake government.
They failed to do so because they failed to learn how to move public opinion. I can only count a few times where they seemed to even try to win public support for needed course corrections.
They held power, a fundraising advantage, and thanks to the think tanks and policy research institutes they had all the ideas they could ever use. What they lacked was an understanding of how to carry a convincing message to more American voters.
The White House and Congressional leaders assumed that holding office was enough. Magically the American people would receive the information they needed and would then support limiting government and the defense of traditional values as called for in the Republican platform.
How could so many talented people drop the ball on such a massive scale? My theory is simple: they weren’t so talented. If you’ve got a better explanation for how thousands of well paid Republicans can mess up so completely, send it to me.
If you’ve worked on Capitol Hill as I have what you realize is that very average people can get elected to Congress. Not surprisingly, a lot of these mediocre men and women then hire staff that similarly lacks ability and vision.
Three books on my book shelf at home outline the plans Republicans had in the mid 1990s for changing government:
- Newt Gingrich’s “To Renew America” (published in 1995);
- Former majority leader Dick Armey’s “The Freedom Revolution” (1995);
- Former Republican National Committee Chairman Haley Barbour’s “Agenda for America” (1996).
These books typified the heady days following the over-throw of Democratic Party control of Congress which had lasted forty years. Within the pages of these books the big issues of the day were outlined – the problems, their causes, the right principles, and the solutions those principles inspired.
Fifteen years later — where are we? As I noted here, the Gingrich led Congress won the support of President Bill Clinton to pass welfare reform and in his first term President Bush passed tax cuts. That pretty much covers the domestic policy successes for a dozen years. Now Democrats in the White House and Congress are undoing both.
A fourth book on my shelf by journalist Robert Novak published early in 2000 is “Completing the Revolution: A Vision for Victory in 2000.” After five years of Republican control of Congress, Novak was firing out flares to warn that the Republicans were well on their way to screwing things up.
Novak chronicled how Republicans were already abandoning principle, lacking the courage of their convictions, and were risk averse. According to Novak, they acted as professional politicians, more concerned with winning reelection than with advancing issues.
Novak saw Gingrich’s leadership as a failure, and the choice of Dennis Hastert to replace him as a huge mistake. Novak’s book was published in early 2000, and he raised questions about the abilities of the Republican nominee for president — George W. Bush.
What the Republicans needed, Novak wrote, was — “a presidential candidate from outside Washington who is not afraid of reform and is willing to explain it to the public.” Novak suggested that the GOP was pinning a lot on a national rookie candidate that might prove unready.
It’s my personal view that George W. Bush had courage — he demonstrated it in spades when things got rough in Iraq. I also believe he had the potential to be a much better communicator than he turned out to be — but was terribly ill served by his advisers. A lot could be written just on that subject — but that discussion is for another time.
I have addressed one of the worst things President Bush had working against him – and that was the feckless, vision-less Republican Congressional delegation. No one man — not even a president — can do it all. The men and women serving in Congress (and their staffs) share the blame for that lost opportunity.
This is all very important recent history. Success in the future will depend upon Republicans learning from what went wrong and committing to do things differently.