One important difference, however, is that the GOP congressional leaders of 1994 had much higher profiles than John Boehner and Mitch McConnell, though it’s not clear what that means for this year: Newt Gingrich and Bob Dole had been national figures for years, but their prominence was a mixed blessing at best. Gingrich was great at inspiring the Republican grassroots. He was also becoming a bogeyman in Democratic fundraising letters. Dole lent the party gravitas without giving it an appealing face. When Dole delivered the GOP response to Clinton’s 1994 State of the Union, journalist Lloyd Grove observed his “Mister Rogers–meets–Freddy Krueger smile.” The GOP’s current state of “leaderlessness” is not necessarily a bad thing. Today, Democrats want a punching bag, but so far, they’re mostly swinging at the air.
In 1994, House Republicans had been in the minority for 40 years, so they did not have to worry about bad memories from their last time at the helm. This time, Democrats will remind voters of the various scandals and policy failures that helped end GOP control just four years ago. GOP majorities have tarnished the party’s reputation for spending restraint among its fiscal-conservative base (though last week’s votes to abandon all earmarks will surely help in that regard). According to the Pew Research Center
, 63 percent of respondents had a favorable image of the GOP in 1994, compared with only 46 percent today. That’s the bad news for Republicans. The good news is that Democrats have suffered a similar drop.
The most important differences between the two years stem from the depths of the country’s problems. In 1994, the deficit was 2.9 percent of gross domestic product. In 2010, it’s 9.2 percent, and the Baby Boom generation stands 16 years closer to busting Social Security and Medicare. Back then, the Cold War had recently ended and the scope of terrorism was not yet clear. Now the threats are painfully obvious.
If the Republicans want to present the electorate with a serious policy agenda, they will have to deal with these problems in a realistic and mature manner. That won’t be easy. Deserving victory never is.
– John J. Pitney Jr. is the Roy P. Crocker Professor of American Politics at Claremont McKenna College.