Lessons from 1994 for GOP

As Republicans ready to lead at least one chamber of congress in 2010 it would be wise for them to revisit the unfortunate mistakes of the 1994 “Republican Revolution.”  There is no doubt the 1994 revolution changed congress and passed important legislation such as welfare reform and the first balanced budget in over a generation but the revolution was incomplete because it did not accomplish what it set out to do.  In order for Republicans to be successful in the upcoming congress they should learn from their prior mistakes in order to avoid costly setbacks again for their party.

Undoubtedly, there are striking similarities between the events surrounding 1994 and present day – an unpopular president who didn’t understand his mandate, tried to enact socialized healthcare, and awakened the angst of a restless citizenry.  In response, Newt Gingrich and the Republican leadership cleverly drafted the Contract with America detailing their plan of action if elected to the majority, just as the Republicans in the House released their Pledge to America the other week.

1n 1994, while impressively winning both houses of congress for the first time in 40 years, the Republicans slowly began to lose their way, misjudged their political opposition, and suffered from internal strife, thus failing to complete their revolution.  By avoiding the same mistakes and learning the lessons from the 1994-2006 Republican congresses they can steer clear of costly mistakes and begin their revolution once again.

Lesson #1: Follow through on promises

In 2010, the elections will most certainly be about the economy, jobs, and spending.  The GOP’s legislative priorities should mirror the concerns of those who will elect them.  In an effort to ram through a leftist, progressive agenda President Obama forgot he was elected in 2008 to stimulate the economy – not stimulate universal government-run healthcare.   

While starting strong in the mid-90’s, the Republican leadership slowly lost focus, appeared to compromise too much on their Contract promises, got distracted with Monica Lewinsky, and by the mid-2000s seemed more concerned about maintaining their own leadership as opposed to providing it.  The lesson for Republicans is to maintain their popular support by actually doing what they promised – reign in spending, defund Obamacare, and extend the Bush tax cuts.  

Lesson #2: Keep communicating with the public

History is replete with examples of parties or presidents getting elected and then claiming a mandate simply because they won an election.  The danger is that the public has a short memory of campaign promises and instead tends to care about the here and now.  It is important for Republicans to continue communicating their ideas to maintain momentum for their legislative initiatives.

Republicans in the mid-90’s thought they had a clear mandate after announcing the Contract with America, but as time passed they forgot to keep educating the public as to why their plan was better than the Democrats’.  The lesson for Republicans is to keep communicating with the public and to not forget the retail politics of grassroots organizing and coalition building, including the continued embrace of the tea party movement – a force that most certainly will help elect them in 2010.

Lesson #3: Beware of the “Politics of Personal Destruction”

This administration and the Democrats in congress have shown they will say anything and attack anyone who is against their agenda.  If we can learn anything from the scathing personal attacks on then-Speaker Newt Gingrich, Speaker-to-be John Boehner and other GOP congressional leaders should prepare for the lies, distortion, and demonization that will be tossed their way by the defeated Democrats and the liberal press corps.

The Republican leadership will most certainly feel pressure to cave in, conform, or compromise – the same formula that was applied to Republicans throughout 1994-2006.  The lesson is to fight back each attack with the same vigor thrown at them while keeping their nerve.

Lesson #4: Obama is still the president

One of the most under discussed topics of the post 2010 world is that Obama will still be president.  The Republicans in the mid-90’s misjudged their political opposition in Bill Clinton and forgot that owning one branch of government does not mean you own all branches of the federal government.  

Bill Clinton was a talented politician who moderated and compromised to pass welfare reform and balanced budgets after the 1994 elections to only then turn around and blame the Republican congress for stonewalling the rest of his agenda.  While Barack Obama is no Bill Clinton, the public is beginning to hear the administration dropping hints of moderation with talk of how they can spin the Republican control of congress in their favor.

The lesson for Republicans is to keep their legislative dreams realistic.  While they might not have the votes to overhaul Obamacare, they do have the power of the purse in the House and can defund it.  Keeping their legislative priorities in check, Republicans will set themselves up for further gains in the Senate and perhaps the presidency in 2012. 

Christopher N. Malagisi is President of the Young Conservatives Coalition, a National Review Institute Washington Fellow, Director of Political & New Media Training at The Leadership Institute, and a political science Adjunct Professor at American University

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