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

By Jim Kessler
Sunday, September 5, 2010; B01

"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.

Nancy Pelosi is not Tom Foley.

Pelosi is tough, strategic and clued-in; Foley was gentle, ineffectual and aloof. No one needs to tell Pelosi that Democrats face a stiff headwind -- there is no doubt that she sees polls each day from races across the country. Foley, by contrast, was so old-school that he didn't even realize he was in trouble.

John Boehner is not Newt Gingrich.

Gingrich was a revolutionary who by 1994 had already outmaneuvered and toppled Minority Leader Bob Michel and forced him into retirement. With a disciplined group of co-conspirators including Dick Armey, Tom DeLay and Bob Walker, he proceeded to nationalize the elections around his Contract With America. Boehner may be an able and respected congressional leader, but he is a country-club conservative, not a world-changer.

Charlie Rangel is not Dan Rostenkowski.

Every Congress has its scandals, but the ethics troubles that Democrats Rangel and Maxine Waters face today are isolated cases, while Rosty's scandal was emblematic of systemic corruption in the House. And Foley wouldn't have been speaker in the first place if not for the demotion (and subsequent resignation) of scandal-scarred Speaker Jim Wright in 1989. The House banking and post office scandals, involving bounced checks and postage-for-cash schemes, dragged on for months and implicated dozens of congressional Democrats.

Tom Perriello is not Jack Brooks.

Looking at the Democratic majority in 1994 is like looking at the old Politburo from the Brezhnev era: It's a tableau of gray, glassy-eyed men with liver spots. In 1994, Neal Smith, at 74 a relatively young representative from Iowa, was defeated by Republican Greg Ganske, who rode around in a 1958 DeSoto to highlight the year Smith was first elected. Ousted Texan Jack Brooks had joined the House a year before Bill Haley and the Comets recorded "Rock Around the Clock."

The Democrats of 1994 had been elected when radio was king, and they had forgotten how to run and how to raise money. Most of today's vulnerable Democrats (such as Virginia's Perriello and Ohio's John Boccieri) are young, hungry and battle-tested.

Obamacare is not Hillarycare.

Health-care reform may not be popular, but at least this Congress passed a bill. In 1994, the idea was both unpopular and a failure. This made Congress look feckless and leaderless. In addition, as pieces of the health-care bill are implemented, voters' views on the legislation may be softening.

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Of course, in one crucial way things are much worse for Democrats today. The economy was tepid in 1994; it's truly awful now.

Even so, there is a model for Democrats: Ronald Reagan's triumph in 1982. What can Obama and the Democrats learn from the Great Communicator? Plenty. Reagan understood that the economy was so bad that to tout his "accomplishments" would be laughable. But though he couldn't sell the electorate on where the nation was at the time, he knew he could sell them on where he planned to take it. With the country shaken by a series of recessions and foreign policy setbacks, he rallied Americans behind his optimism ("Don't let anyone tell you that America's best days are behind her") and faith in American exceptionalism ("the last, best hope of man on Earth"). Things might look bleak today, he told voters, but blue skies lie ahead.

If Democrats are to hold on in November, they must follow Reagan's tack, sketching a vision for the future that has the United States leading the globe with the world's strongest economy -- one fueled by private-sector growth and a successful middle class. And they must resist the temptation to succumb to a populism that portrays members of the middle class as weak, powerless victims.

Reagan correctly understood that even in very difficult economic times, the American middle class is enormously resilient. This is as true today as it was in 1982. In a national poll that the Benenson Strategy Group conducted in June for Third Way, 71 percent of likely voters said they were doing better economically than the average American, and two-thirds said their personal finances were going to improve over the next five years. Americans may be skeptical about government, but they have a deep faith in their own ability to get ahead, and they want their political leaders to offer a vision that will help them do that.

Optimism wasn't Reagan's only tactic, of course. He also told people that there were only two routes to take -- his, or the one that led back to Jimmy Carter. In the process, he portrayed the Democrats as the party of pessimism, limits and the belief that, as he put it, "the United States has had its days in the sun, that our nation has passed its zenith."

Recently, Obama seems to have borrowed a page from Reagan, quipping that you put a car in D to go forward and R to go back. Linking the prospect of a Republican Congress to George W. Bush's economic ideas in this way is a promising approach: Our recent poll found that voters approved of a hypothetical candidate who supported Obama's economic policies by 15 points over one who wanted to go back to Bush's economic policies.

Now it is time to borrow another page from Reagan, by offering a more positive, powerful, muscular view of what this country can achieve.

Americans realize that the economy is in crisis, and they don't expect it to turn on a dime. But they want to know that Democrats have a vision that appeals to their highest aspirations and seeks to restore our nation's economic greatness and mantle as the most powerful economy on Earth.

Monday is Labor Day. Would I write the same memo today as I did on Labor Day in 1994? No -- Obama and the Democrats will not be caught off guard this time. If they can continue to link the possibility of a new Republican majority to a return to Bush policies, while also communicating their own vision of a new dawn for America, voters may be ready to listen.

It's tough out there, but Schumer doesn't need to dust off his old fax machine. At least not yet.

Jim Kessler is vice president for policy at Third Way, a progressive think tank.

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