To keep the 2010 midterms from repeating 1994, Democrats can learn from Reagan

By Jim Kessler
Sunday, September 5, 2010

"We are going to lose the House and the Senate."

Those were the opening words of a memo that I faxed to my then-boss, Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), on Labor Day in 1994. Schumer was still in the House, I was his legislative director, and my prediction was based on one overarching idea: The Democratic Party had lost its way. Our national agenda had been hijacked by the parochial agendas of aggrieved special interest groups. And as a result, we were badly misfiring with the middle class.

Today, Democrats are fretting and Republicans are salivating at the prospect that 2010's midterm elections will be a repeat of 1994, when the GOP took control of both houses of Congress. A new Gallup poll shows Republicans with a 10-point lead on a generic two-party congressional ballot -- a margin unmatched in more than 60 years of polling. Several incumbent senators have lost what should have been safe primary races. House Republican Leader John Boehner has gone so far as to boast of 100 possible GOP pickups and has already begun outlining a three-point plan for his tenure as speaker.

All in all, the president's party holds some pretty bad cards -- but even so, this year needn't be like 1994. If Democrats take a close look at what happened that year, they can avoid repeating it. And if they look to another election year, 1982, they might even find inspiration in an unlikely place: President Ronald Reagan's leadership. In the run-up to that year's midterm elections, Reagan faced 10.8 percent unemployment, 6 percent inflation, a declining GDP, an approval rating barely above freezing and the indignity of having drastically increased the budget deficit over the previous year after running as a fiscal hawk. You can't get a hand much worse than that, but Reagan nonetheless managed to hold all 54 GOP Senate seats while losing only 26 House races.

Back in the summer of 1994, Democrats didn't seem to think they had such an awful hand. In the first of several major differences between the situation Democrats face now and the one they faced then, few thought Congress was going to change hands. A Gallup poll that July had Republicans ahead on a generic ballot, but by a benign five-point spread. Besides, Republicans had been in the minority in the House for more than four decades. The likelihood of them taking power seemed akin to the Cubs' chances of winning the World Series.

Unlike most people on Capitol Hill at the time, I knew from experience what defeat looked like. My previous boss, Chet Atkins, a four-term incumbent from Massachusetts, had lost in 1992 after squeaking by the previous cycle. I knew, for example, that a 43 percent approval rating in an inhospitable political climate probably meant a loss for a lazy officeholder -- even if he was ahead by 20 points some months out. As I scoured the nation's papers for polls on individual races late that summer, I saw familiar signs of doom for dozens of sitting Democrats.

The reaction to my Labor Day memo was swift. My phone rang at 11 p.m. Without so much as a hello, Schumer said: "I read your memo. I think it's right. We need a plan."

The next evening, we sat down with House Speaker Tom Foley. Schumer began by saying: "Mr. Speaker, I'm worried about the November elections. I think we could lose the House. I'm even worried about your race." Despite the fact that Schumer had been in the House almost 14 years, Foley didn't really know him (he called Chuck "Charlie," for one thing).

The speaker rolled up a magazine, unfolded his legs and began talking, launching into a story that continued for 15 minutes and involved, among many things, a ceremonial headdress he had received from a Native American tribe outside Spokane. Finally, he slapped Schumer on the leg with the magazine and said, "So, Charlie, I'm not concerned about the House or about my race." Then he left.

In all, Republicans gained 54 House seats and eight Senate seats to take control of both sides of the Capitol that fall. Foley became the first speaker to lose his seat since 1862. And it would be 14 years before Democrats again controlled both Congress and the White House.

It is understandable if much of what has followed the Democrats' return to power has inspired a sense of deja vu: In 2009, as in 1993, Democrats rode in on a wave of hope and an ambitious agenda, led by a president who desired to be above partisanship but was soon pulled into partisan fistfights. As in the early Clinton years, a potent, conservative, populist movement is gathering steam -- disaffected Perot voters back then, energized "tea partiers" today. And just as the Republicans in Foley's Congress were unified behind Newt Gingrich and Bob Dole, Boehner and Mitch McConnell have held the Republican bloc together under President Obama.

Those are the similarities. But I see five potentially decisive differences between 1994 and 2010.

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