High time for a high tide?
By Lefty McTighe
The 1994 national elections were a watershed moment in American political history. In the first midterms of Bill Clinton’s presidency, Republicans trounced Democrats by more than 4.7 million votes nationwide, triggering a 54-seat swing in the balance of power in the House of Representatives, and handing the GOP control of that chamber for the first time in 40 years.
Yet while the problems that plague Republican incumbents in 2006 bear a strong resemblance to those that doomed Democrats in 1994, an even more critical piece of the puzzle remains, at the moment, missing. Democrats in 2006 are still struggling to match the success of Republicans in 1994 in developing, articulating and rallying around a shared vision for the nation. And that could be the crucial difference in whether Democrats can win control of Congress this November.
Incumbents in the crosshairs
The parallels are intriguing. In 1994, scandal rocked Democratic Congressional leaders, just as for Republicans today. For Dems, it was a check-writing scam involving the House bank. Republicans today are saddled with Tom DeLay, Jack Abramoff and corruption involving political contributions.
Widespread dissatisfaction with the chief executive also existed in 1994. Bill Clinton had a rocky first two years in office, marked by a highly controversial debate over gays in the military, an unexpected flashpoint in Somalia, and the political fiasco that was his health care plan. George W. Bush is perhaps even more unpopular rolling into his midterm elections. The 43rd president has consistently polled below 40 percent of late, with his leadership and judgment in serious question over Iraq, Katrina, economic issues and more.
In both years the same party ruled the White House and Capitol Hill, creating a sense of politicians run amok and a lack of accountability; ethics clouds hung over both parties, and the president lacked the political capital to rally his party to victory. But will that be enough for Democrats this November?
The “Vision” thing
In September 1994, six weeks before the November midterm elections, Congressional Republicans unveiled the ‘Contract with America.’ It was an ethos that propelled the Grand Old Party to electoral victory, and three factors made it an enormously powerful political tool.
First, the Contract articulated a clear conservative vision to American voters, and an undeniable alternative to the Clinton White House. From lower taxes to welfare reform, from revamping Social Security to tort reform, it was a crystal clear agenda from the right end of the spectrum. In politics, where contrasts matter most, the differences couldn’t have been more obvious.
Second, the Contract was signed by all but two Republican candidates for Congress. Incumbents and challengers alike signed the pledge, and literally hundreds of Republican office-seekers rallied behind one set of shared principles. It was an impressive display of unity that also solidified a new Republican identity.
Finally, the Contract focused only on so-called “60-percent issues” while eschewing highly divisive and controversial subjects. It was an agenda that appealed to a broader segment of the voting population, but was rooted enough in conservative philosophy to motivate the base. So while abortion wasn’t in the deal, there was enough business de-regulation to appease red-meat conservatives.
All of these factors converged to end four decades of Democratic control of the House. And it is a dynamic so far missing from the 2006 election cycle.
So complete was the Republican victory that in its aftermath President Clinton felt compelled to argue that the presidency “still mattered.” Democrats and Progressives, frustrated by three consecutive election cycles of bitter disappointment, hope 2006 can do to Bush what 1994 did to Clinton – seize the discourse from the White House and put the president on the defensive.
Republicans will likely lose seats this year, but without a clear statement of vision or purpose Democrats cannot expect the electoral tide to rise high enough to shift the balance of power in Congress and give them an undisputed mandate. The reason is simple: The great lesson of the 2004 election is that a message of “George Bush is terrible” is simply not enough to win. What’s needed is a positive agenda that says, very clearly, what Democrats will do, not what they won’t do.
And the Democratic Party has its roots in a tremendous tradition that at the turn of the last century advocated progress for all, fighting for women’s suffrage, child labor protections, anti-trust laws and the social safety net.
Progressives still stand for wonderful things, and the failure of Democrats to craft a compelling message to inspire voters this year is as perplexing as it is inexcusable. The time is now for Democrats – in a very clear, very articulate and very unified voice – to speak to the Progressive issues that resonate most with Americans.
Here are a few basic ideas. Democrats must talk about providing every single child in America with an excellent public K-12 education and making college loan programs available to more students. Democrats must fight to ensure every single American has access to quality health care coverage. Democrats must pledge to make alternative sources the centerpiece of an energy agenda. Democrats must promise to offer an economic platform that strengthens the middle class, working families and small businesses while meeting an obligation to help the destitute and downtrodden in our society. Democrats must advance a foreign policy that builds coalitions, unifies global opinion, promotes freedom and makes us safe by attacking those who have attacked us.
Democrats would do well to emulate the tactics of their Republican rivals of 12 years ago. If Democrats don’t take advantage of today’s widespread voter dissatisfaction with Republicans by offering a competing, positive, proactive vision, they will fail to seize control of Congress and that change the political dialogue in this country. And if Democrats fail there, the better question is perhaps not whether they take control, but whether they really deserve to lead. VS