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Role of Minority Party: Remain Positive, Relevant and Engaged

The late President Gerald Ford is rightly remembered best for helping to heal the nation following “our long national nightmare,” as he called it — the traumatic Watergate scandal that culminated in President Richard Nixon’s resignation in August 1974 and Ford’s elevation. Indeed, Ford’s autobiography is titled “A Time to Heal.” [IMGCAP(1)]

However, I also remember him for another important healing role he played nearly a decade earlier — helping to reinvigorate the House GOP in the aftermath of Lyndon Johnson’s crushing defeat of Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.) in the 1964 presidential election. I vividly recall some pundits consigning the party to the scrapheap of history given its abysmal showing.

House Republicans lost 36 seats in 1964, dropping from 176 to 140 Members. Ford, who had ousted a more conservative Republican for the Conference chairmanship in 1963, was now being urged by a group of Young Turks (including future Defense Secretaries Mel Laird and Donald Rumsfeld) to challenge sitting Minority Leader Charles Halleck (Ind.). With Kansas Rep. Bob Dole bringing the rest of his state’s delegation with him, Ford narrowly won, 73 to 67.

In fact, with the exception of Minority Whip Les Arends (Ill.), Ford brought in a whole new team. Laird became Conference chairman and Ford tapped Rep. Charlie Goodell (N.Y.) to head a new Planning and Research Committee. “Under it,” Ford explains in his memoir, “we established thirteen different task forces to study issues from federal aid to education to national health insurance to Congressional reform, and asked them to draft bills that we could support.” Ford says initially they called their project the “Constructive Republican Alternative Proposals,” until, that is, they looked at the acronym — CRAP — and “decided to find a different name.” That did not deter gleeful Democrats from continuing to use the original acronym. As Ford recollects, “These initiatives upset members at both extremes of the GOP,” which “convinced me our approach was sound.”

By the time I arrived in Washington, D.C., that summer as a college intern, the new leadership team was moving ahead at full-steam. I was thrown into the mix with a Conference office brimming with eager interns, busily churning out position papers, speeches, testimony and book chapters. “This party sure doesn’t look dead,” I remember thinking at the time.

Yes, Republicans lost every one of their alternative approaches on near party-line votes. But most Members were fully engaged in helping to rebuild the party through these policy development exercises, giving new meaning and hope to the struggling minority. Although Johnson earned soaring presidential support scores from Congress with his legislative blitz of 1964 to 1966, the Republican efforts were not misspent.

In the 1966 midterm elections Republicans not only won back the seats they had lost in 1964, but also picked up an additional 11, raising their ranks from 140 to 187 Members. There already was a sense among the electorate that the Democrats had overpromised and gone too far, too fast.

Republicans, on the other hand, had demonstrated they were not content merely to oppose and hope the political winds would change. As Ford put it in his memoir, “We simply had no right to shout ‘No, no, no,’ unless we had come up with better solutions to the problems at hand. And none of us doubted that those problems were real.”

No, they did not take back the majority in the near-term. The best they could do was hit the high-water mark of 192 Members in the 1968 and 1972 presidential elections with Nixon leading the ticket. That was, of course, before Watergate knocked the wind out of their sails, leaving them adrift once again after the 1974 and 1976 elections in a 142-seat dead zone.

It wasn’t until Ronald Reagan’s election as president in 1980 and another major shake-up in House Republican leadership that the rebuilding process began anew. It included a Capitol steps rollout of a united Congressional-presidential campaign platform in 1980 — a precursor to the “Contract with America” — and yet another leadership shake-up.

Pundits and political analysts will continue to differ over just how much a minority party’s efforts to project an alternative vision and set of policies for the country can make a difference in elections that ordinarily are either localized or are perceived as referendums on sitting majorities. My own sense is that it’s usually a mix of the three, and the nature of the mix will vary depending on conditions. But minority parties do matter, and the public ordinarily has a feel for whether a minority is ready, capable and deserving of governing.

Republicans have undergone another significant change over the past two years, pushing to the fore a group of young, enthusiastic and enterprising leaders and Members. That youthful dynamism of Young Turks rising always has been the key to party rejuvenation. Our system thrives on a strong two-party system. I have no doubt that both parties vigorously will pursue their respective roles over the next few years.

Don Wolfensberger is director of the Congress Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and former staff director of the House Rules Committee.

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