Republicans hope that 2010 will be a rerun of 1994. There are some striking similarities, which should give them hope. But there are also key differences, which should give them pause.
As was the case 16 years ago, big fiscal measures and a muddled health-care proposal have hurt the president’s standing. In fact, Obama is a bit less popular than Clinton was at this point in the election cycle. In early 1994, Clinton’s Gallup approval rating stayed between 50 and 58 percent. Since the start of the year, Obama’s numbers have varied between 47 and 52 percent.
Then, as now, polls showed the public giving low marks to Congress. The chair of the Ways and Means Committee, Dan Rostenkowski, was in deep ethics trouble, as is the current chairman-on-leave, Charles Rangel. House Speaker Tom Foley was in danger of losing his seat, as is Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
In recent months, statewide elections in Virginia, New Jersey, and Massachusetts have signaled erosion in Democratic support. In 1993, Republicans won the Virginia and New Jersey governorships, and Kay Bailey Hutchison won a special election to succeed Lloyd Bentsen as a Texas senator, becoming the first Republican to hold that seat since Reconstruction. In May of 1994, Republican Ron Lewis won a Kentucky House seat that had not belonged to a Republican in more than a century. The result startled Democrats, including the president. In his memoirs, George Stephanopoulos recalled Clinton’s reaction: “It’s Nazi time out there. We’ve got to hit them back.”
As Clinton’s comment suggests, the Democrats of 1994 had a low opinion of their grassroots opponents. Back then, many of those opponents were religious conservatives. Rep. Vic Fazio (D., Calif.), chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, lashed out at “the fire-breathing Christian radical right.” Without meaning to, Fazio and company gave the impression that they were putting down all evangelicals. Likewise, current attacks on “teabaggers” reverberate beyond their intended targets. Liberal Democrats sometimes sound as if they regard much of the country as truck-driving, gun-clinging, Harvard-professor-arresting yahoos. Seeming to sneer at voters is seldom smart politics.
A myth has developed about 1994: Democrats were oblivious to danger until Election Night. “We were caught napping,” says House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer. “Nobody’s caught napping now.” But in reality, 1994 wasn’t nap time, either. Fazio called the Kentucky result “a wake-up call.” Charles Cook, an election expert trusted by both sides, said: “The question is whether Democrats are going to take a hit, take a big hit, or take ‘the big hit’ — that is, lose control of both chambers.” Democrats knew that something bad was heading their way; they just couldn’t stop it.
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.