I don’t quite feel it yet. The much-anticipated 2014 Republican landslide, that is.
I can see its possibility on the horizon; I can read the poll numbers; I can watch even the liberal media start to take President Obama to task for the fiasco at the Department of Veterans Affairs. But what I hear from people isn’t yet a determination to “throw the bums out” or an excitement about the possibility of doing so, but instead more of a fear that the bums might find a way to hang on and a wistful hope that those fears are wrong.
It’s not really defeatism in the Real America outside of Obamaland, but it’s certainly not yet a “can do” spirit, either. People in everyday life are completely fed up with the federal government, but they don’t feel empowered to change things. They don’t really think the system responds well to the popular will anymore; they think it is rigged in favor of insiders, moneymen, and Obama’s legions of politicized bureaucrats.
And most people seem not to be enthusiastic about the idea of Republicans taking charge of the whole of Congress; the GOP isn’t a favored option but merely the option that happens to be available to battle the continued abuses of Obama’s lackey, Harry Reid. Most people don’t trust Republicans to accomplish much other than a rearguard action to stop the worst of Obama’s transgressions.
This is quite different from how things felt on this same weekend in 1994, when the so-called Gingrich Revolution was brewing. Less than two weeks after the Democrats romped in the 1992 elections, I had written a memo to my then-boss, Representative Bob Livingston, predicting that Republicans would be seriously competitive in 1994 and could win their first House majority in 40 years. By Memorial Day weekend of 1994, Livingston, responding to tremendous pro-Republican energy at a series of rural town meetings, was flat-out guaranteeing a GOP sweep. More than five months before Election Day, the reformist tide already was swelling noticeably.
So, what is different this time around? It’s not that the polls today don’t look promising; they do. It’s not that the anger at Washington is any less; indeed, it’s probably even greater now than it was in 1994. Still, I think anybody on the hustings would agree that there’s a wariness now, a lack of optimism, and a cynicism about the system itself that didn’t exist to anywhere near the same degree 20 years ago.
Back then, too, the right side of the political spectrum was far more unified. Sure, the old establishment was a bit nervous about the Gingrich tactics, but Minority Leader Bob Michel not only didn’t stand in the way but actually provided encouragement to the insurgency. Meanwhile Gingrich, Republican National Committee chairman Haley Barbour, National Republican Congressional Committee chief Bill Paxon, and National Republican Senatorial Committee chairman Phil Gramm were largely on the same wavelength and working well together. It was a far cry from the internecine wars of the past several years.
Also, the public had no recent example of bad Republican management of Congress to dissuade it from entrusting the GOP with power. Indeed, despite the elder Bush’s failure to win reelection, the glow of the Reagan years remained strong. That Republican glow was enhanced by signal Republican successes in opposition in 1993 and 1994, with young leaders like the “Gang of Seven” (led by Rick Santorum and, yes, John Boehner) having successfully exposed and helped fix Democratic ethical breaches while Republicans also defeated Hillarycare and warded off the worst of Bill Clinton’s tax-hike proposals.
No, the Contract with America hadn’t even been drafted yet, but the idea of a unified, positive message already had taken hold among Republican candidates. Conference chairman Dick Armey and his politically astute staff led by Kerry Knott and Ed Gillespie (who helped plan the Contract while enjoying the hospitality of conservative leader Morton Blackwell) were handling internal communications quite effectively, helping incumbents sing off the same page.
Revisiting all of this is not just an exercise in nostalgia. Instead, it is part of a warning against overconfidence, along with some lessons of what we still must do if Republicans are going to build on their House majority and retake the Senate.
First, whatever divisions exist, those right of center should keep their eyes on the ball. The political enemies aren’t RINOs or (for moderates) radical tea partiers; the enemies are the Obamites who threaten, to an extent far greater than Bill Clinton did, to trample the Constitution and our liberties. No primary campaign should scorch the earth so badly that any unified effort is impossible afterward. And no sour grapes should be excused from whichever camp loses each race. If Bob Michel and Newt Gingrich could work in tandem, so can and should all right-leaners this fall. (Relatedly, proposals utterly and bitterly divisive on the right, such as immigration “reform,” should not, not, not be pursued.)
Second, candidates must find positive messages, just as the purveyors of the Contract did back in 1994. Don’t just blast the VA scandal; push the idea of veterans’ health cards usable at private facilities just like a Medicare card is. Don’t just gripe about Obamacare; pick one or two of the most easily explainable parts of the Scalise bill or the Burr-Coburn-Hatch plan (or another conservative health reform) and run with it.
Third, emphasize ethics. Just as Santorum and Boehner did in the early 1990s (and as the first part of the Contract highlighted), conservatives should understand that the public thinks the very process is broken, and voters want evidence that elected officials will formally limit their own ability to game the system.
Finally, don’t be frightened of taking bold stands. (Repeat: bold — not reckless.) The American public is fed up with business as usual. It wants significant change, without rancor but still with energy and firmness.
Conservatives cannot be overconfident that public disgust with Obama will lead to victories on the right. As 6 million expected voters proved in 2012, Republican leaners can easily choose just to stay home and avoid the poll lines. Indeed, they might be far more inclined to do so than they were in 1994 because, unlike 20 years ago, they also have a bad taste in their mouths from Republican excesses and failures.
Conservatives must offer them something sweet, something hopeful, in order to take away that taste and sell the Right’s recipe.
— Quin Hillyer is a contributing editor for National Review. Follow him on Twitter: @QuinHillyer.