Where We Went Wrong
Somewhere along the road to a "permanent majority," the Republican Revolution of 1994 went off track. For several years, we had confidence in our convictions and trusted that the American people would reward our efforts. And they did.
But today, my Republican friends in Congress stand on the precipice of an electoral rout. Even the best-case scenarios suggest wafer-thin majorities and a legislative agenda in disarray. With eight days before the election, House speaker-in-waiting Nancy Pelosi has already begun her transition planning.
Where did the revolution go astray? How did we go from the big ideas and vision of 1994 to the cheap political point-scoring on meaningless wedge issues of today -- from passing welfare reform and limited government to banning horsemeat and same-sex marriage?
The answer is simple: Republican lawmakers forgot the party's principles, became enamored with power and position, and began putting politics over policy. Now, the Democrats are reaping the rewards of our neglect -- and we have no one to blame but ourselves.
In 1989, Newt Gingrich rose to the number two leadership position in the House after a contentious three-way race pitting young backbench conservatives such as myself, Bob Walker, Joe Barton and others against old bulls such as Minority Leader Bob Michel and other ranking members. We thought they suffered from a minority party mindset and were too accommodating of the Democrats. Out of congressional power for nearly two generations, Republicans had become complacent. Senior members of the party were happy to accept the crumbs afforded by Democratic chairmen. Life was comfortable in the minority as long as you did not rock the boat. Members received their perks -- such as travel abroad and special banking privileges -- and enough pork projects for reelection. The entire Congress lived by the rule of parochial politics.
Gingrich and I and a handful of true believers in Ronald Reagan's conservative vision set the goal of retaking the House. The "Contract With America" outlined our platform of limited government. This vision appealed to both the social and economic wings of the conservative movement; equally important, it included institutional reforms for a Congress that had grown increasingly arrogant and corrupt. The contract nationalized the vision of the Republican Party in a way that unified our base and appealed to independents. We championed national issues, not local pork projects or the creature comforts of high office.
In 1994, this vision was validated when Republicans took 54 seats in the House, eight seats in the Senate and control of both houses of Congress.
Welfare reform in 1996 only affirmed the revolution. Bureaucrats, special interests and the White House all claimed that the sky would fall if we touched this failed Great Society program, but we held firm. When you take on a sacred cow, you must kill it completely -- tinkering on the margins is ineffective. In the end, the reform proved so successful and popular that President Bill Clinton (who rejected the original bill twice) considers it one of the best ideas his administration ever had.
At one point during the welfare reform debates, a member approached me and said, "Dick, I know this is the right thing to do, but my constituents just won't understand." I told him, "So you're telling me they are smart enough to vote for you but not smart enough to understand this?" He ended up voting to pass the bill.
Yet despite such successes, we didn't learn the right political lessons. A few months before the victory on welfare, we lost the battle over the federal government shutdown of 1995, when we were outmaneuvered by Clinton, a masterful political operator. After that fight, too many Republicans apparently concluded that America wanted bigger government. This misreading was the first step on the road away from the Reagan legacy.
We emerged as a wounded party; we stopped trusting the public; and we internalized the wrong lesson. Since the party won the majority in 1994, the GOP Conference had been consistent in requiring offsetting spending cuts for any new spending initiatives. (In fact, during the aftermath of a large Mississippi River flood, Rep. Jim Nussle even waited to find and approve offsets before moving the relief legislation for his own state of Iowa.) But by the summer of 1997, the appropriators -- rightly called the "third party" of Congress -- had begun to pass spending bills with Democrats. As soon as politics superseded policy and principle, the avalanche of earmarks that is crushing the party began.
Now spending is out of control. Rather than rolling back government, we have a new $1.2 trillion Medicare prescription drug benefit, and non-defense discretionary spending is growing twice as fast as it had in the Clinton administration. Meanwhile, Social Security is collapsing while rogue nations are going nuclear and the Middle East is more combustible than ever. Yet Republican lawmakers have taken up such issues as flag burning, Terri Schiavo and same-sex marriage.
They're fooling only themselves.
If Democrats take control of Congress on Nov. 7, they will form an accidental majority. They are not succeeding because of their principles or policy proposals, but simply because they have kept their heads down. Republicans, fearful of taking on big tasks and challenges, may be defeated next month by a party that offers nothing on the key issues of our day.
Pelosi says she would preside over a moderate Democratic majority, and has committed to raising taxes only as a last resort. But Democratic policy goals such as nationalized health care and low-interest student loans are expensive, and dozens of new spending "priorities" will crop up as soon as the election results are tallied. Democrats have promised that all new spending will be offset by tax increases, so will they raise taxes in the run-up to the 2008 race?
In essence, Pelosi will be forced to choose between a vocal base -- expecting immediate satisfaction on issues such as withdrawing from Iraq, legalizing same-sex marriage and the impeachment of President Bush -- or policies that are tolerable to a majority of Americans. That's quite a dilemma: appeasing a base that has been hungry for political revenge since 2000 and 2004, or alienating moderate and swing voters.
Pelosi has stated that House committee chairmen will be chosen by seniority. This could backfire on the Democrats, because members from the most consistently partisan districts are usually the ones who stick around the longest. Chairmen have the power of the subpoena; Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), the would-be judiciary chairman, has already drafted articles of impeachment for Bush, while others are calling for investigations on the war in Iraq and the federal reaction to Hurricane Katrina. A revenge-hungry Democratic majority, substituting political grudge matches for serious policy, will not remain a majority for long.
How can the Republicans respond?
The leadership must remember that the modern conservative movement is a fusion of social and fiscal conservatives united in their belief in limited government. The party must keep both in the fold. Republicans also need to get back to being the party of big ideas. The greatest threat to American prosperity today is a catastrophic fiscal meltdown resulting from long-term entitlements. Democrats have already lined up behind the solution of raising taxes and reducing benefits. But Americans want more freedom and choice in education, health care and retirement security. Republicans -- too busy dreaming up wedge issues to score cheap points against Democrats -- have lost sight of their broad national agenda.
The likely Republican losses in next week's elections will not constitute a repudiation of the conservative legacy that drove the Reagan presidency and created the Contract With America. To the contrary, it would represent a rejection of big government conservatism. When we get back to being the party of limited government, putting a national agenda ahead of parochial short-term politics, we will again be a party that the American voters will trust to deal with the serious challenges facing our nation.
The 2006 midterm elections will be a success for the Democrats. Republicans will have to manage their own disappointment. Fingers will be pointed, and various villains will be fashioned out of recent events. But the plain fact is that Republicans have been setting the stage for this outcome for nearly a decade, running from themselves and their own principles. We will not find ourselves by conforming to the status quo, but by returning to our Reagan roots.
When we act like us we win. When we act like them we lose. Let's win.
Dick Armey, the House majority leader from 1995 to 2003, is currently chairman of the think tank FreedomWorks.