Democrats Look to ’34, Not ’94

Posted November 18, 2008 at 6:48pm

Democrats, who will soon hold the House, Senate and White House for the first time since 1994, say they have learned the lessons of President Bill Clinton’s first two years and are desperate not to repeat them.

Instead of the 1994 debacle, which came after the failure of major health care and energy legislation, Democrats say they are focused on another date.

“We’re actually talking more about 1934,” Rep. Chet Edwards (D-Texas) said.

That’s when Democrats added to their majorities for the third straight election, two years after the election of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal.

“The election was a call to action,” Edwards said, adding that Republicans could face a 1934-style election in 2010 if they are “seen as simply defenders of the status quo.”

“We have a model to follow,” said newly minted House Democratic Caucus Chairman John Larson (Conn.), also pointing to 1934.

Democrats know they can’t have the kind of high-profile failures and infighting that plagued Clinton’s first two years.

“I’ve heard from so many Members that we have to get the job done,” Larson said. New Members were elected with a sense of urgency, he said, while committee chairmen and other veterans who lived through the 1994 debacle “see this as our moment.”

“You recognize that these moments don’t come around very often, so it’s carpe diem, seize the day.”

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) have both talked this week about working in a bipartisan way and governing from the center, but also of having a broad and deep agenda.

Hoyer directly addressed the 1994 debacle at a National Press Club appearance on Tuesday.

“There is a difference between ’09-’10 and ’93-’94, and the difference is 12 years in the wilderness,” Hoyer said.

More broadly, Hoyer called for an expansive agenda for the next Congress, including economic stimulus, health care, energy, global warming and reform of Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. But Hoyer said the agenda will be addressed “thoughtfully,” not politicized.

“For the first time in decades, we are a true national majority party — and if we want to stay that way, we must govern like one,” he said.

Democrats recall being shocked to lose the House after decades of control, and they are no longer complacent, several Democrats said.

“For those of us that were here, I think 1994 is seared in our memory, and we will do everything we can to avoid it,” said Tom Kahn, Democratic staff director of the Budget Committee. “We can’t take anything for granted.”

The challenge will be avoiding ideological struggles that could rip the Caucus apart, some key moderates said.

“It is my hope that the new Democratic majority comes to the understanding that people voted for change, not for the ideology of the left, but away from the ideology of the right,” Rep. Lincoln Davis (D-Tenn.) said.

Davis said the party should avoid taking partisan votes just to excite the party’s base, which he said Republicans had done repeatedly over the years.

“Our base ought to be the American people,” he said. “We can’t assume in the future that American voters will reward us if we take an ideological tilt.”

Davis noted that many of the Democrats elected in the past two elections — who pushed the party into the majority — are centrists from all regions who could be in danger if the party were to overreach. “We must learn from 1993-1994.”

Davis said he’s particularly encouraged by the naming of Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.) as Obama’s chief of staff, because Emanuel was astute on what would cause moderates heartburn. “He would not force them into an ideological vote. That’s the kind of leadership we have in the White House,” he said.

But that doesn’t mean the party shouldn’t have a broad agenda, Davis and others said. The country voted for and wants a new energy plan, a new health care plan, a new education plan and a lot more, Davis said.

Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.) — who will reprise his role as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in addition to a new policy role as a special assistant to the Speaker — said the American people sent a message in the election, but Democrats have to deliver on the mandate for change.

“They want us to work together to take on the challenges that face our country,” Van Hollen said. “That’s the test we face.”