During my recent trips to Capitol Hill to meet with old friends, I have noticed many new faces in Republican offices. Most of these young staffers never worked in a Republican-controlled Congress, but it has been good to see the new energy, the new Members, and the new ideas. Yet, despite this new energy, I also sensed a gloomy, pessimistic tone with many of these staffers about our prospects for the upcoming elections. Repeatedly, some say that it is better to lose in 2008 so that we can win in 2010 or that we are going to be in minority a long time. Where are they picking up this political poison?
When I moved to the Washington, DC area in 1992, the Democrats controlled the Congress and Republicans the White House. Trekking to the Republican National Convention in Houston, Texas that summer, I saw President Ronald Reagan probably deliver one of his last great speeches as President. Despite the political excitement of the summer of 1992, I and many other Republicans who were just getting their start in national political work, something was not quite right. A few months later the country elected the Clinton-Gore team and the Democrats took control of both political branches of the federal government.
For the Republicans remaining in the DC area, it was not a pleasant time. Jobs were naturally harder to come by with GOP-laden resumes, but it was a lot more than that. A liberal had been elected President after two conservative Administrations. Why the dramatic shift? Poor campaigning by the GOP, an exhausted Republican base, a natural shift in our political system, and many other reasons were offered. But just having arrived from outside-the-beltway, where people pay little if any attention to the daily antics of DC political life, none of the reasons made sense. We are a center-right country, and we elect a center-left Administration?
A lot of our friends decided to pack it up and return home. Who could blame them? And those of who stayed behind set our sights on the few places who were hiring Republicans: the Congress and the Republican National Committee (RNC). I eventually found my way to the latter, working at GOP Headquarters while the current Mississippi Governor, Haley Barbour, led the Party. In 1994, the Republicans swept the mid-term elections resulting in a net gain of 54 seats in the House of Representatives and eight seats in the Senate – breaking Democratic, big-government control of Congress for the first time in about 40 years.
In addition to the national race, founded on the Contract with America, Republicans did well in many state and local races. The GOP won twelve Governorships and close to 500 state legislative seats. The GOP also took control of 20 state legislatures, controlling a majority of the state legislatures for the first time in 50 years. The Democratic Party continued to suffer electoral defeats in many elections there after. It was a good time, again, to be a Republican and Bill Clinton and his party eventually got the message that the American people would not tolerate big government, more taxes, or liberal, left-wing solutions to our Nation’s problems. Despite this, however, we would have to wait until 2000 for Republicans to win control of the White House, the House, and the Senate.
While the Democrat’s complete control of the government was short-lived from 1993-1995, in contrast to how long the GOP managed to keep control of the White House and Congress, our time has been too short. From 1997-2002 I worked on Capitol Hill with a senior Member of Congress, Rep. Bill Thomas (R-Calif.). The risk of staying in town in 1992 had paid off and, after a grueling 2000 Presidential election, the Republicans had accomplished some truly remarkable things in a very short span of time. But the Party also lost its way and grew the size of federal government and many domestic programs, maintained, or in some cases, increased pork barrel spending, and lost control of the national political debate.
The Democratic Party did what most of its current national leaders do best: obfuscate, focus on tawdry personal issues rather than on political solutions, and waged a political war attrition to destroy the GOP image, one Member, one Administration official, and one Congressional staffer at a time. It is not as if the Democrats do not have issues of their own to deal with, it is that the current GOP, by and large, is not very good as an institution to wage that type of political warfare. In 2006, while the numbers were not as impressive as the 1994 GOP rout, the Democrats won control of the Congress, again, just twelve years after the GOP gains.
Despite the punditry to the contrary, the U.S. is still a center-right country. Just study how the “new” Democrat centrists in the Congress ran their campaigns and you will note that it was not on an anti-war, pro-tax, or big government platform. On the current Amazon.com books best-seller list, Republican and libertarian Member of Congress, Rep. Ron Paul, has the number slot: “The Revolution: A Manifesto.” To the notable angst of her base, Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-New York) appeared this week on the O’Reilly Factor on Fox News. Earlier this year at the CPAC conference the hotel was full to capacity and there were young people from every part of America learning about the conservative movement, networking, and growing our base. There are many more examples. Inside this town, however, it is as if these things do not matter.
No one knows what Minneapolis holds for the Party this summer, but we do know that the Democrat nominating process has afforded the McCain camp a unique opportunity that they are taking full advantage of and will continue to do so. That will soon change, the GOP must be ready. It will be a campaign unlike any other in recent memory and will require more work, more money, and more dedication by the base than previous campaigns. And while we always say that the stakes are high every election, this time, they truly will determine the ideological path the government will take for decades to come. If the Clinton or Obama win, and the Democrats maintain control of the Congress, rest assured that they will begin to unravel GOP policies ranging from tax to national security matters.
We are not going to regain the majority talking to each other in DC or supporting leftist or government-centered solutions to the many policy challenges of our time. While the political and campaign experts predict that the GOP will not re-gain the majority in the November 2008, just holding our current numerical status in the Congress and electing Sen. John McCain President would be a significant accomplishment. It would begin to lay a foundation for the 2010 elections. Yet even to accomplish this feat, we will need to communicate our message clearly, offer solutions but realize that we are not in the majority, and talk to voters outside the Beltway.
Keeping the Democrats accountable in Congress during the next few weeks and months, calling out their many mistakes and radical agenda for the country is key. Having a platform of solutions based on our principles and ideas is even more critical. It is not as if the GOP needs Contract with America II, but it sure needs a lot more than what it has been delivering lately. Recent electoral defeats in key Congressional districts reinforce the latter several times over, but it appears folks are sticking with the same agenda.
For the newcomers to Washington, especially those many staffers on Capitol Hill who have only worked in a Democrat-controlled Congress, remember, it is better to be in the majority. Remain focused on core GOP principles and use the robust oversight powers. The country wants conservative, ideas-based leadership. Do not let the left define, as they have done so ably the past five years, what the latter means. Call the Democrats to task boldly, for they are making many mistakes, and communicate it to your ideas and solutions to the voters (i.e., those people outside the beltway in case you forgot) And, most importantly, get that negative thinking out of your heads and focus on winning, not whining.