SHORTLY before the 1994 midterm elections, when House Minority Leader Newt Gingrich began talking about a coming Republican takeover of Congress and outlining plans for his speakership, David Dreyer, a White House aide, remarked, "He's done Lord Acton one better. He's corrupted by power he doesn't yet have." After Election Day it was Dreyer who had egg on his face. The Republicans did take over the House and the Senate, controlling the two for the first time since 1955 -- and by a broad enough margin that they seemed likely to hold both houses indefinitely. Everyone spoke of a "revolution" -- both politicians and the wider public, both those who favored and those who feared one. Pundits resurrected the decades-old metaphor of the political analyst Samuel Lubell, according to which America has essentially a one-and-a-half-party system. One party is the sun, illuminating all the planets. The other is the moon, giving off only reflected light. For the first time since before FDR's election, it looked as if Republicans were the sun and Democrats the moon.
Today Dreyer and others who scoffed at a Republican ascendancy seem likely to have the last laugh. There has indeed been a movement to the right on some issues, but it has not translated into a partisan shift. A stunning mid-1997 ABC/Washington Post poll, asking voters "Which party do you trust more to ...," showed the Democrats besting the Republicans on practically all issues, including such Republican staples as taxes, crime, and budget balancing.
Suddenly it looked as if either the 1994 election was a fluke or the 104th Congress had done something dramatically wrong. The Republicans have narrowed the gap in party registration until they're only four percentage points behind the Democrats (39-35), but the Democrats still lead on the issues. The Republicans hold a majority in Congress, but that Congress has been trumped by a Democratic President on every major policy initiative of the past three years. And when a midwinter sex scandal initially sees the President's job-approval ratings rising to about 70 percent, the Republicans have cause for worry. There is now no sense in which they are the sun of American politics. Far from it: they are a majority giving rise to second thoughts among those who made them one.
This is something the Republicans seem not to realize. Their party was thrashed in the 1996 national elections. In presidential politics they were stuck on the Goldwater-McGovern-Mondale landslide-loser plateau of 40 percent, as they had been in 1992. They lost nine seats in Congress. Yet the party is approaching the 1998 election as if it won the last time out. Republicans of all persuasions view their party's problems as temporary, remediable through either ideological fine-tuning or image buffing and spin. Certain Republicans -- particularly cosmopolitan governors on the East and West Coasts, such as Christine Todd Whitman, of New Jersey, and Pete Wilson, of California -- claim that the party has moved too far to the right, and that its stances on social issues, notably abortion, are driving away centrist voters. Others -- particularly those at Christian organizations, such as Gary Bauer, of the Family Research Council, and James Dobson, of Focus on the Family -- say it's too far left, lacking the guts to assert itself on family dissolution and related family-values issues on which the public is in its corner. Still others -- among them such Class of '94 congressional firebrands as Steve Largent, of Oklahoma; Linda Smith, of Washington; and Mark Neumann, of Wisconsin -- say that the party has ignored centrist, Reform Party-style outrage and made itself a campaign-finance-swilling incumbency-protection machine. Another line of thinking is that the party has merely been victimized by accidents of personality: the mysterious ability of Newt Gingrich to generate loathing and of Bill Clinton to generate support.
Many, if not most, Republicans view the 1994 election as a mandate stolen from them by accidents of leadership and the collusion of the press and other "elite" institutions. In this reading Bill Clinton lifted "their" issues by mouthing conservative positions on the budget and welfare reform, and the credulous media have abetted Clinton's public-relations war of "micro-initiatives" such as school uniforms, the V-chip, portable phones for neighborhood-watch groups, and various small education proposals.
Republican problems go deeper than that, however. The party faces a crisis of confidence that has many symptoms -- repudiation in the most sophisticated parts of the country, widespread distrust of the Republican leadership, an inability to speak coherently on issues. All of them grow out of the same root cause: a vain search to rediscover the formula that made that unformulaic President, Ronald Reagan, so broadly appealing -- even beloved. Congressional Republicans triumphed decisively in 1994 on such Reaganite issues as free trade, welfare reform, and shrinking the government. But thanks to a deficit-dissolving economy and a dwindling memory of the Cold War, those issues were of declining importance even then, and they have given way to a bipartisan consensus. "Consensus," of course, is only another way of describing the issues that have been taken off the table. What remains for the party to talk about? On first thought, not much. The Republican strategist Ed Gillespie says, "We're like the dog that caught the bus."
Now that there is no longer any force on the political landscape to challenge their general principles, the Republicans are clinging to power, even as they grow confused about what exactly they are supposed to do with it. They are infuriating voters by blaming them at every turn for the party's failure to win their hearts. In other words, the Republicans are looking more and more like the Democrats of the 1970s and 1980s, and less and less like the party that overthrew them.
SINCE the 1960s Republican gains at the national level have been built on two trends. One is regional -- the capture of more and more southern seats. The other is sociological -- the tendency of suburbanites to vote Republican. The party's 1994 majority came thanks to a gain of nineteen seats in the South. In 1996 Republicans picked up another six seats in the Old Confederacy. But that only makes their repudiation in the rest of the country the more dramatic. The party has been all but obliterated in its historical bastion of New England, where it now holds just four of twenty-three congressional seats. The Democrats, in fact, dominate virtually the entire Northeast. The Republicans lost seats in 1996 all over the upper Midwest -- Michigan, Wisconsin (two seats), Iowa, and Ohio (two seats). Fatally, they lost seats in all the states on the West Coast. Their justifiable optimism about the South aside, in 1996 it became clear that the Democratic Party was acquiring regional strongholds of equal or greater strength.
As Walter Dean Burnham, a political scientist at the University of Texas, has noted, the 1996 elections almost diametrically oppose those of 1896. (See maps below.) Anyone who is today middle-aged or older was born in a country with a solidly Democratic South and a predominantly Republican Midwest and Northeast, and probably will die in a country in which the Republicans hold the Old Confederacy and the Democrats dominate from the Great Lakes to the Atlantic. In effect, the two parties have spent the twentieth century swapping regional power bases.