Monday, September 20, 2010

Who Made 1994 Happen?

I'm not sure what Ezra Klein meant today when he said (my emphasis added)
The House, as we know, is a more polarized place. That's been especially true since 1978, when Newt Gingrich was elected and began ratcheting up the GOP's partisanship in order to create a clearer contrast with the majority Democrats. Gingrich's strategy worked -- and not just in the House. 
If he's saying that Newt succeeded in making Congress a nastier place, then he's correct.  If, however, he's saying that Newt's strategy was responsible for GOP gains, then I disagree.  Before and after 1994, I think there's little if any evidence that polarization helped Republicans do better in the House than they otherwise would have done, and I believe a case can be made that a different House Republican Conference, one less intent on throwing bombs, might well have fared better in several pre-1994 elections.  As for 1994, the election that made Newt Gingrich's reputation, I've never seen anything to convince me that he did anything other than doing a great job of claiming credit.  Now, mostly that's because there's not much that any House Minority Whip can do.  But at any rate, to the extent individual actions were responsible beyond the structural reasons that Republicans did well in Clinton's first midterm, credit for the 1994 landslide should correctly be given first to Bill Clinton's early disarray in the White House, and second to Bob Dole's successful use of Senate rules to obstruct much of the Clinton program, leaving Clinton with a reputation for failure by late 1994.  At best, Gingrich was responsible for recruiting some candidates, although I've never seen more than anecdotal evidence that his efforts were really responsible. 


  1. Newt was at UGA in April 2009 to give the Getzen Lecture and was quick to cite his efforts in 1978 and especially 1980 as laying the groundwork for 1994. He referred to the 5 Capitol Steps in 1980 as the natural predecessor to the Contract with America. His emphasis that day was obviously not on polarization but on the strategy of having a cohesive national party message. Of course, it is easy to cherrypick particular events ex post facto.

    Gingrich was definitely cobbling together a broad, almost presidential agenda that day. For those interested, I live blogged the talk. There were at least some interesting themes that touched on some of what you're talking about here Jonathan. But I think you're right, his real mark in 1994 was recruitment.

  2. What made 1994 possible was the 1990 redistricting and Ross Perot.

  3. William,

    Redistricting yes (although IIRC it wasn't a huge factor). Ross Perot? Not at all.


    I really like the idea of Newt taking credit for 1994 because of some campaign theme he came up with that no one ever heard of -- now or then -- in 1980.

  4. I've generally believed the recruitment story; if I recall, the GOP candidate quality was higher in 1994 than the predictions based on normal factors (open seats, economy, prez approval) would predict. Naturally, that has an effect, but as William notes, without the structural factors like 1990 and Ross Perot, it doesn't go as far.

    Politicians are very much prone to seeing mandates behind every tree, or at least meaning. And Gingrich is, of course, willing to interpret history in a light that makes Gingrich more important. This isn't just Gingrich, of course, who might be more megalomaniacal than others; we all have a tendency to think that we matter.

  5. Oh, appropos of this discussion....

    Congressional GOP unveiling their agenda on Thursday. So, all those generic ballot polls done so far are completely worthless.

  6. Gingrich was a bystander in '94, same as the rest of us.

    Off year elections will always draw top drawer candidates, particularly when the newly elected president only drew 42.9% of the electorate.

    The Congress went through the looooooong Summer before the election yammering about HillaryCare, and then we voted. The results were predictable. Obama and Pelosi tried to shortcircuit that effect, by finishing up earlier. It won't work... ObamaCare is gonna kill them.

    Like '94, before which Clinton and Congress pushed for an energy BTU tax, Obama and Pelosi have pushed for Cap and Tax, as one of their first legislative moves. It is killing them.

    Then there was Rostenkowski and other corrupt D's.

    Gingrich was a bystander... a legend in his own mind.

  7. No matter how many right-wing buzz words you use, a single piece of legislation isn't going to be the decisive element of how people vote, especially one that never even came up for a vote in the Senate. It's the economy and demographics. In 1994, there were clear signs of economic recovery, but the demographics had been against Democrats for a while (Ross Perot merely made it look otherwise), and were only worse in a midterm. In 2010, signs of economic life are MUCH murkier, and while demographics have moved (somewhat) in Democrats' favor, the nature of midterms still means less of Obama's base will turnout.

    That's a much simpler explanation than saying voters are pissed about the conservative, free-market solution to climate change that never came up for a vote and are going to take it out on the liberal, big-government party.

  8. Redistricting's effect was spread over 2 cycles because the first election after was a presidential election cycle that buffered the blow for Dems. If you don't think Perot had an impact on 1994, you don't understand what happened in American politics during the '90's. In many ways Perot was an effect rather than a cause, but he certainly helped reshape the Republican party into what what the folks over at Balloon-Juice call the Confederate party. That led to a lot losses in the South for the Dems in 1994.

  9. William,

    If Perot was an effect rather than a cause, then he didn't affect results, right? If that's what you're saying, I certainly agree.


    Actually, there is a lot of variation in the strength of candidate fields -- and it turns out to be a major factor in what happens nationally.

  10. Jonathon,

    Was Perot a cause or an effect of the changing Republican party of the 90's? Yes. He was both. He wouldn't have been nearly as successful in '92 if the Republican party presidential coalition hadn't been breaking apart. But the type of candidate he was (i.e. the specific appeals he made) was instrumental in pulling certain kinds of voters out of the Republican coalition for both presidential and congressional elections. That, in turn, forced Republicans to turn to the "southerner who voted for Republicans for President and white Democrats for Congress" voter and make him a full-time member of the Republican coalition. Outside of the south, Perot voters who voted in the midterms in '94 largely voted Republican, but most of them for the last time because the party was in the process of abandoning them. In the south, the Republicans, bouyed by redistricting and in-migration of Republicans from other states, were able to out-Confederate most of the remaining conservative Dems. I believe they were able to do this largely because the didn't have to appeal to Perot voters.

    It's a complicated picture, but if you look very carefully at the changing nature of the Republican party, the changing beliefs of self-described conservative voters, and the changing pattern of Republican electoral victories, it comes into focus.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.

Who links to my website?