10 Years Later: Lessons to Be Learned From GOP’s ’94 Takeover
Republican Revolution Evidence That Change Is Decade-Long Process
When it comes to taking control of the House, 10 is the magic number.
The 2004 elections will mark the 10th anniversary of the Republican Party’s historic capture of the House and Democrats’ relegation to minority status.
That takeover didn’t happen overnight. It wasn’t just the product of a last-minute political mood swing or the aftereffect of any one cataclysmic, terrain-altering event.
Instead, according to Republican lawmakers and aides who helped engineer it, the House GOP victory in 1994 was the culmination of a decade-long process of message-honing and agenda-crafting.
“It took us 10 years,” said ex-Rep. Bob Walker (Pa.), a key architect of the GOP triumph who is now a lobbyist at the Wexler Walker Group.
Walker and others pointed to 1984 as a turning point — the year that two Texas Republicans and future leaders, Tom DeLay and Dick Armey, were elected and the year in which a key House GOP group, the Conservative Opportunity Society, began to make real headway in helping to shape the party’s core ideas.
That was also the year then-Reps. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), Vin Weber (R-Minn.) and Walker really began pushing for the GOP to go on offense, according to former Gingrich adviser Jack Howard.
In 1984, those three lawmakers “decided it’s not chiseled in stone that Republicans are going to be in the minority,” Howard said.
While House Democrats have now spent a decade out of power, it is not clear whether they have begun a process similar to the one Republicans went through to reach the top. After all, in 1984 the GOP had already been in the minority for 30 years.
“We had to have 40 years to make our case,” said Armey, who now runs the conservative group Citizens for a Sound Economy. “The Democrats I think have decided that they can make a case in a decade.”
According to Republicans, the most important first step for a party trying to capture the majority is for it to recognize its minority status and understand that changes — sometimes radical ones — must be made.
“The fact is that for several terms, [House Democrats] operated under the assumption that the American people had made a horrible mistake” in 1994, Walker said. “Now I think they’ve begun to accept the fact that they’ve become a minority. It was the conclusion that ultimately Republicans had to come to as well.”
The Pennsylvanian added that it was crucial for the minority party to recognize that the majority rules, and that the path to power does not involve simply trying to exact small concessions or having some negligible impact on legislation before it passes.
“You have to accept the fact that you are not capable of governing [from the minority], so the only reason you exist is to take over the majority,” Walker said. In 1994, “the day-today battles within the system were not going to get us the majority.”
Once a party has adjusted its mind-set and committed itself to doing whatever is necessary to gain power, then the grunt work begins, according to the GOP theory.
Joe Gaylord, another former Gingrich aide who runs the political consulting firm Chesapeake Associates, portrayed the GOP’s strategy for taking the majority as a six-step playbook. None of the steps is necessarily easy — or replicable. But they worked once before.
Step One: The Agenda
“You have to have a clear set of principles about what you’re for,” Gaylord said. “You cannot do this simply by saying what you’re against.”
In 1994, Republicans coalesced around the “Contract With America,” a policy platform containing 10 planks — reportedly because Gingrich believed the number has a special significance in American culture — that laid out the party’s alternative governing vision.
Armey, the contract’s lead author, said that all 10 parts had been carefully polled and crafted. The entire document was designed to resonate with the public. Most House Republicans signed on, and, more importantly, so did GOP candidates across the country.
The contract was also a necessary balance to the GOP’s increasingly vocal attacks on House Democrats. In addition to criticizing Democratic policies, Republicans spent years portraying their opponents as arrogant and corrupted by power.
Such a message could only work, however, if Republicans could say specifically what they would do differently.
The key idea was “give us a chance to be in control and we’ll deliver,” Howard said.
Step Two: The Language
Simply crafting a policy agenda isn’t good enough. Most voters likely aren’t interested in hearing a detailed breakdown of how a Republican budget or Medicare plan differs from Democratic proposals.
The key to Republicans’ effectively hawking their agenda in 1994 was their ability to make it simple and digestible to voters who had a thousand other things to worry about.
“It’s understanding how to put what it is that you’re for in the language people use in their everyday lives,” Gaylord said, referencing a simple equation. “In campaigns, politics consumes 90 percent of our lives. It may consume 1 percent of voters’ lives.”
Polls and focus groups played a key part in the GOP’s 1994 effort, and in crafting the contract’s simple, clear language.
Armey laughed as he recalled Democratic attempts to dismiss the contract as some sort of radical, fringe manifesto without recognizing that every word had been tested.
“I guess it never occurred to them that we had checked that out,” Armey said.
Step Three: The Media
In their current state, House Democrats are having enormous difficulties attracting the media’s attention. What’s the point of crafting an alternative governing vision if reporters won’t pay attention?
“The media’s going to cover those people that are actually passing bills and governing,” Walker said.
Congress has enough trouble getting the spotlight away from the president under any circumstances, and Democrats are hampered by the fact that they control neither end of Pennsylvania Avenue.
“I have felt your pain,” Armey said of Democrats’ current predicament. “I know it is tough. Congress can never compete with the White House for attention. Even in the majority we had trouble competing with the White House.”
The key for the GOP in 1994 was to develop a strategy that involved attracting the press’ attention while also employing nontraditional means of communicating directly with voters.
“You had to repetitively communicate the message over, under, around and through the media,” Gaylord said. “You had to find unique ways to get the message across.”
The nontraditional approach actually began years before the takeover. In the early 1980s, House Republicans began to take advantage of the then-young C-SPAN network by giving aggressive, highly scripted special order speeches on the House floor.
GOP strategists believed this allowed them to deliver their conservative message to a small but politically active audience.
(In 1984, Speaker Tip O’Neill [D-Mass.] grew so tired of Republican attacks on him and his party that he ordered C-SPAN’s cameras to pan the empty chamber during a speech by Walker. A floor fight ensued that resulted in some of O’Neill’s words being taken down.)
As 1994 approached, Republicans turned increasingly to talk radio. Even more so than C-SPAN, talk radio allowed the GOP to speak directly to conservative audiences and to mobilize new armies of potential campaign donors and volunteers.
On the more traditional front, House Republicans got a fair amount of ink for the contract, bringing GOP candidates from all over the country to Washington to pledge their fealty to the same policy agenda. The Republican National Committee also paid for a copy of the contract to run as an ad in TV Guide just before Election Day.
Step Four: The Candidates
On the campaign front, House Republicans made a key early decision to play in as many districts as possible.
Parties always speak confidently in public about expanding the House playing field, while privately concentrating on a handful of competitive districts. But in 1994, the GOP made a point of mounting campaigns in nearly every district in the country rather than letting essentially safe Democrats cruise to re-election without facing even nominal opposition.
The rationale behind this, Gaylord said, wasn’t necessarily that Republicans would unseat entrenched Democrats (though they did beat some) but that the strategy would force some Democrats to suck up funds that might otherwise go to more competitive races.
“We had to make old-line incumbents be pigs and squeal for the money,” Gaylord said.
Step Five: The Coalitions
Once House Republicans had gotten the attention of their base, the next component of their strategy was to build coalitions.
They focused initially on activists closely affiliated with three positions: anti-tax, pro-gun rights and anti-abortion.
GOPAC, a political training and fundraising committee then headed by Gingrich, helped spread the word by distributing tapes of his speeches and musings on political strategy to Republicans all over the country, including state legislators and other GOP officeholders.
“That began to build us a farm team,” Walker said.
As Gaylord described it, the trick then was to add to this trifecta by attracting independents and politically disillusioned citizens who might need some prodding to turn out on Election Day.
More specifically, House Republicans looked to attract people who had supported Ross Perot’s presidential bid in 1992. While many in the GOP grumbled that Perot’s campaign essentially handed the White House to the Democrats in 1992, party strategists quickly figured out that his backers might well be amenable to Republicans’ reformist message.
Step Six: The Environment
For all the Republicans’ efforts to hone their agenda and disseminate their message, those efforts did not occur in a vacuum. The environment had to be ripe for a change in power.
By 1994, the Democratic Party was beset by infighting. Having been in power for 40 years, House Democrats had the luxury of squabbling among themselves with moderates and liberals feuding over the direction of the party.
“The Democratic Caucus was really badly fractured at that point,” Howard said.
Republicans were also able to take advantage of some post-1992 disillusionment with the Clinton administration. The White House’s botched health care plan, which was crafted by then-first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, helped the GOP portray its opponents as arrogant and drunk on power.
“Mrs. Clinton probably gave us the best opportunity to take the House,” Armey said.
While it would have been nice for Republicans then — and for Democrats now — to be able to capture power without any help from the opposing party, that was unrealistic.
“It’s always better to have something you can control instead of the opposition controlling it,” Gaylord said.