The biggest error of the Democrats and their allies this year was to believe their own campaign rhetoric. Anti-Democratic feeling was really only anti-incumbent feeling, they declared. In fact, not one Republican incumbent governor or member of Congress lost, only Democrats. A big turnout, if it could be accomplished, would save the Democrats, we were told. But the 39 percent national turnout was two points over average mid-term elections. And in higher turnout states Republicans seem to have made their greatest gains.
Washington state had an estimated 65 percent turnout. Easier registration procedures during the past two years produced a half-million new voters, Secretary of State Ralph Munro notes, “and the Republicans apparently got them.”
The Christian right, Democrats warned, was a danger to democracy. But if this supposed threat bothered voters, it was a side-issue that succeeded mainly in agitating the Christian right to greater efforts. Of more significance, a majority of respondents to exit polls indicated that a decline in moral values was a major concern.
One of the biggest casualties was the late Democratic Speaker Tip O’Neill’s political admonition, “All politics is local.” With their “Contract with America” and the assistance of Rush Limbaugh, Republicans in 1994 nationalized the election and won with remarkable consistency across the country.
During the campaign, the actual contents of the “contract” were barely covered by the major media (an oversight now corrected after the election) and were subjected to a negative spin in Democratic television spots. But the “contract” was described in detail over talk radio, computer on-line services and new conservative cable TV programs. Another old political assumption that was dealt a blow is the old Depression-era knock that the Republicans are the party of Wall Street while the Democrats are the party of the little guy. GOP candidates won majorities among working-class voters as well as middle- and upper-economic groups. Big business PAC money, as usual, went overwhelmingly to incumbents and this year that meant Democrats.
Sen. Slade Gorton, though an incumbent and the recipient of substantial PAC money, illustrates the Republicans’ reach in developing small contributions. Gorton kept trying to emphasize the fact that his $5 million campaign chest came chiefly from some 33,200 donors in this state. But the critics had eyes only for the money, not for the massive citizen effort behind it. An objective analyst would have considered that Gorton’s kind of activist base is not only unusual for Republicans, it is, in fact, unique in our state’s history, and almost unbeatable.
Because of his army of donors, and another 10,000 foot soldier volunteers his campaign mobilized (many of them young people), Gorton has become the effective leader of the state Republican Party. What he does with that challenge will help determine the ability of the Republicans to overcome the organizational decline that has afflicted his party here (and especially in Seattle) in the past generation.
GOP state parties elsewhere were strengthened by the election. Republicans are now in control of 31 governorships, representing states with three-quarters of the country’s electoral votes. Even if the GOP in Congress fails, leadership from the states is likely to invigorate the 1996 election cycle.
Meanwhile, all the veteran Republican leaders in Congress are basking in the creation of a whole group of new recruits. The freshman Republicans in Congress next January – numbering about 70 – will be the largest “class” since the Democrats gained congressional dominance after the Watergate election of 1974.
For comparisons with other Republican Congresses you have to go back to the 82nd Congress of 1953-4, before the personal experience of almost anyone now in politics, and even that Congress was not as Republican as the 104th, just elected.
The country itself is a vastly different one from ’54, beginning with a population now half again (58 percent) bigger. And the government that resulted from 40 years of Democratic control of the House is almost unrecognizably changed. For one telling example, the government’s budget today is 22 times as large as the last time Republicans organized the Congress.
The first target for a shake-up will be Congress itself, where one of the leaders of reform is Rep. Jennifer Dunn of Bellevue. The House Republican Contract pledged to cut congressional staff by a third, and it should not be hard to do. The Democratic majority typically afforded Republicans only a small share of staff positions. In the House Energy and Commerce Committee, for example, Democrats currently have 180 staff posts and Republicans 17. After a well-deserved one-third cut, there will still be plenty of positions open for Republicans to fill, even permitting them to be more generous to the Democrats than the Democrats were to them.
The Republicans have proposed a whole series of other changes to Congress, including a general pledge to apply to senators and representatives the laws Congress applies to the rest of us. And they pledge term limits. If, as is possible, the Supreme Court rules term limits unconstitutional, the Republican majority might be excused for abandoning this commitment. But a better option would be to adopt and submit to the states a constitutional amendment establishing the principle permanently – as an earlier Republican Congress (in 1947) established it for presidents.
The Republicans will be expected to do something about campaign finance reform and lobbying reform, but they must avoid turning the funding of campaigns over to the government. The permanent “reform” groups who operate as career scolds love the idea of public financing because it assures that only the biggest and most insatiable lobby – government itself – will be left free to influence candidates. A Republican reform, in contrast, would be one that provided generous tax deductions or partial credits for individual contributions that come from within a candidate’s home state. The object is not to restrict political participation, but to expand it.
The worst mistake for the new congressional majority would be to promise the country to perform at some new standard of “ethics” purity, as both the incoming George Bush did in 1989 and Bill Clinton did in 1993. Mere electoral success assures that the media inspectors who make their living out of finding supposed wrongdoing will leap twice as fast at any politician/target that can be described as hypocritical as well as corrupt.
All experience advises the new leaders, for example, that they will never be able to satisfy a standard of purity that assures no “appearance” of wrongdoing, for that appearance is largely in an accuser’s eyes. In fact, the new Congress should revise the current law to get rid of such pettifoggery as the “appearance” standard, which is a snare for honest officials, so that real wrongdoing will get the emphasis it deserves.
But political reform and “ethics” are not at the heart of what ails the country, in any case, nor are these subjects what really bothered voters this fall. The Clinton administration is unpopular not because of Whitewater or some Cabinet officer’s supposed junkets. The president is unpopular because he promised “change” that promoted personal responsibility – to be a “New Democrat” – and then, once in office, gave the country more of the same old government nostrums.
The Republican election of 1994 can be seen as a mandate for putting limits on government and for freeing individuals to achieve for themselves and their families. But it also was a mandate for doing better what government is supposed to do.
The greatest danger in the Republican contract is that it will now be used by media to raise expectations beyond what the new Congress can meet. But, if it is not possible to suddenly balance the budget while adding to defense appropriations and providing comprehensive tax relief in the next two years, it is entirely possible to make substantial cuts in spending, eliminate many programs altogether and reduce others, make strategic tax rate reductions that will help families and stimulate the economy, and to strengthen defense in ways that will save money in the long run.
Here are some likely opportunities for successful Congressional leadership, some suggested by the House Republicans’ contract, some not. In all cases, the challenge to the GOP will be to make the president offers he can’t refuse – offers in the form of legislation which are persuasive because they have innate public approval.
Fairness for Families: double the personal income tax exemption, but only for children. It is the family raising children that has the hardest time making ends meet. Then, double the exemption again two years from now. Even then the new Congress still will not achieve the relief that the personal exemption provided families two generations ago. Still, no government program will do as much to help overburdened parents, and without administrative overhead costs.
Promote adoption. Pass the model child adoption legislation that died in the last congressional session. Recent studies confirm that adopted children fare just as well as others and much better than children warehoused in rotating foster families and institutions. Prisons are filled with the products of disastrous home lives or no home lives at all. Adoption spares individuals and society many such losses. The left is divided on this issue; the Republicans should lead.
Health-care reform. The Bush administration failed to deal with this issue in an ameliorative fashion, which led the Clinton administration to blunder in the opposite direction with an overwrought program of government control. The public doesn’t want the government program, but they do want such obvious advantages as insurance portability and coverage for pre-existing conditions.
Government deregulation. The work of the Bush administration’s commission on de-regulation and similar efforts can now be adopted in Congress. Last year, for example, Sen. Gorton came within three votes of the 160 he needed to defeat the Democratic leadership’s filibuster of tort reform. Next January, the major congressional opponents (notably Sens. George Mitchell and Howard Metzenbaum, and Rep. Jack Brooks) will all be gone, while all their replacements are likely “yes” votes. The opposition party is divided on this kind of issue, too, because many Democrats not in thrall to the trial lawyers realize that preposterously expensive litigation ultimately hurts ordinary people by raising prices and slowing economic growth.
Endangered species. Most people recognize that we should protect endangered species, but the draconian interpretations to which the present act has been subjected is a classic example of the misuse of science. Once again, many Democrats will join in a reasonable rewrite of the act.
Promote voluntarism. Since the tax increases under Bush and Clinton, charitable giving has gone down. Voluntary service is stagnating, even as the president promotes his new, government financed Amerikorps. Unfund Amerikorps, which usurps the true spirit of voluntarism, even while doing some good, and instead provide taxpayers with a larger bonus tax deduction for charitable giving. If gifts could receive even a 110 percent rather than 100 percent deduction, charitable giving would be increased enormously.
In almost all cases, worthy social programs desired by Democrats can be created and administered more effectively and at less cost by private charity, and without government’s heavy hand. Meanwhile, reducing the capital gains tax will spark enough new economic activity to cover the increased deduction’s loss of direct revenue.
Technology advancement. The left has wanted more regulation and government control, while the Clinton administration is most eager just to get its name on new legislation that promotes what most people regard as a blessing: American leadership in telecommunications and technology. The heavy regulatory approach may safely be said to have died in the elections last week. The new Republican majority’s approach should be to maximize genuine free competition. The technology issue is of enormous importance to the future economic strength of the country and the creation of jobs.
It will not matter to anyone but policy wonks how the new congressional majority handles the details. But whether the results address the deeper concerns of the ordinary voters who made their voices heard this past week does matter to the Republicans. They either will solidify their new political majority or set themselves up for another cycle of disillusionment in 1996.