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Is Congress Ready for Another Revolution? Not So Fast

In 1994, Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and his band of reformers stormed Washington, D.C., in what is now known as the Republican Revolution. The small cadre of revolutionaries catapulted to Republican control in the House of Representatives after 40 years of Democratic domination, thanks to an incredible 52-seat gain in a single election. Now, 11 years later, Washington is abuzz about the possibility that Democrats sit on the verge of a similar revolution in 2006.

Notably, the bar for a change in control of the House is decidedly lower in 2006 (requiring only a 16-seat gain by Democrats) than it was in 1994 (when Republicans needed a 40-seat pickup). Thus, a Democratic majority remains possible. On the other hand, a Democratic revolution is not.

First, the dynamics are different. Claiming to steal a page from the Gingrich playbook, Democrats have focused their language on the simple and familiar theme that arrogance and abuse of power permeate the majority party. As a reference point, Democrats have been quick to compare the legal woes of Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas) to those of former Democratic Speaker Jim Wright (Texas) with the clear suggestion that the end result will necessarily be the same: a new majority.

There are some obvious differences, though. Significantly, having been in the majority for 40 years, often with a roughly 40-seat margin, Democrats had a far lower sense of vulnerability in 1994 than Republicans in 2005 have, given their 16-seat margin and just 11 years in the majority. In 1994, Democrats had forgotten what it was like to be in the minority, and with such a large margin, they had very little fear of losing control. In 2005, most of the current Republican majority remember well being the minority party and fully appreciate the possibility that they could return to minority status. Basically, Democrats had lost all fear of losing by 1994 and thus never saw it coming. Republicans still run as if it is all on the line.

There is one other dynamic, this one involving timing. After Wright resigned in 1989, the Democrats actually gained seats in 1990 and 1992. The Democrats did not lose the majority until the third election after he resigned.

Second, and much more importantly, Democrats have no revolutionary around whom other revolutionaries can coalesce. The Gingrich plan in 1994 did not involve just overthrowing the Democrats; his plan also involved changing the leadership and direction of his own party. Although he held the position of Minority Whip in the House, neither Gingrich nor his band of reformers was ever considered part of the Republican establishment. Indeed, had Gingrich simply rallied his troops around Minority Leader Bob Michel (R-Ill.) as the representative of the same ideas that had been failing for 40 years, it is unlikely that Republicans would have gained the majority.

The same is true for Democrats in 2006. Their current strategy is to build from within. The problem is that a plan that involves rallying around Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) simply involves trying harder to sell a vision that Americans have rejected for six consecutive elections involving control of the House.

The Gingrich strategy was built around a different set of ideas embodied in the “Contract with America,” which offered a positive alternative to both the incumbent Democratic Party and to the drifting Republican Party. It was a conscious effort to offer an agenda that was conservative and also appealed to the values of the vast majority of Americans — what Gingrich now refers to as America’s Natural Majority.

So 1994 was a revolution by outsider-reformers challenging the establishments of both parties with a bold and different set of ideas for a better America that had a natural base of support in the country. There is no indication that Democrats have anything comparable.

It remains possible that through self-inflicted wounds House Republicans could fumble away control of the House in 2006. Their accomplishments thus far, and their agenda for the remainder of this Congress, make that unlikely. On the other hand, it is clear that 2006 will not be the year for another revolution.

Randy Evans, a partner at the law firm McKenna, Long & Aldridge, is counsel to Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.).

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