Why you should care
The 1994 Republican Revolution didn’t come out of nowhere. It took losses, hard work and a forward-looking agenda.
Happy-go-lucky? Not what comes to mind when talking about Newt Gingrich, the longtime Republican House leader from Georgia and Bill Clinton’s arch nemesis in 1990s Washington.
But according to Gingrich, it was “cheerful persistence” that led to the landslide 1994 Republican victory. Gingrich spoke about his historic win this week at the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C., at an event marking the 20th anniversary of his famed “Contract with America” that lay at the center of the electoral strategy.
That victory reversed the flow of American politics, sweeping Republicans into the majority in Congress for the first time in 40 years, turning upside down what had been conventional wisdom: that Democrats were the party of Congress, while Republicans dominated the presidency.
We were standing on the belief that ideas matter.
The GOP has since controlled the House for 16 of the last 20 years.
How did he do it? Not a case of lightning striking. Decades of work, defeats and setbacks preceded it, as the former House Speaker said.
“We lost in ’80, ’82, ’84, ’86, ’88, ’90 and ’92. I was involved every single year. We were trying every single year and it was very, very uphill,” Gingrich recalled. “Historic change requires historic effort. The only way to sustain historic effort is cheerful persistence.”
It’s a theory, anyway. What he really means by “cheerful” is a positive agenda — something he insists opposition parties need to win over voters.
“We were standing on the belief that ideas matter,” he said. Yes, voters were unhappy with the economy and Hillarycare — Clinton’s fumbled health-care initiative. But Gingrich insists that if Republicans had simply “run an anti-Clinton campaign in ’94, we still wouldn’t be in the majority.”
Instead, Gingrich offered up the Contract, a straightforward “management document,” as he called it, that laid out what the Republican Party planned to do in the first 100 days of the new Congress in 1995, should it win control of the House. “A detailed agenda for national renewal,” it promised.
The key is not right versus left but future versus past.
The Contract, which candidates took to voters, included a series of specific reforms to Congress: auditing, term limits for committee chairs, and opening committee meetings to the public, among others. And it detailed 10 public policies for new legislation — including welfare reform, tax cuts and new programs to crack down on crime.
When Republicans seized control of the House, that’s exactly what they did, with the exception of a constitutional amendment to limit terms for Congress members. Not all of the policies became law, but as a political manifesto, it set the tone for Congress for much of the rest of the decade. Even now, congressional Republicans harken back to the Contract with America as a model for party leadership today.
Gingrich is worried that two decades later, Republicans have forgotten the most important lesson of 1994, which is actually to offer the voters something.
“I am deeply opposed to any consultant or any political staffer who talks to the news media about the campaign this fall being a referendum on Obama,” he said. “As a professional who’s done this since 1958 … I regard it as maniacally stupid and unprofessional to think you can get away with a purely negative campaign.”
That, he suggested, turns off independents and moderate Republicans and would leave the party with no consensus for governing even if it did manage to win.
“The key is not right versus left but future versus past,” argued Gingrich, sounding like the history professor he used to be. “We have an opportunity in the next three years to begin to become the movement of the future.” Provided Republicans can agree on some policies.
So far, the Republicans’ 2014 strategy seems squarely centered on attacking Democratic candidates for ties to President Obama. Looks like Gingrich has another uphill fight on his hands, this time within his own party.