6 Ways a Republican Congress Can Avoid the Mistakes of 1994 and 2010

We all know the drill: The GOP makes big gains on Capitol Hill, overreaches for two years, then loses the next presidential race.

Newt Gingrich unveils the Contract with America in 1994.  (John Duricka/AP)

In the past 20 years, Republicans have twice won big in midterm elections, in 1994 and 2010. They twice lost the next presidential election. It looks as if the party may gain a third big success in 2014. How can Republicans avoid a third ensuing defeat? Here are six suggestions, three negative and three affirmative.

1) Don’t try to govern from Congress. In 1994 and again in 2010, triumphant congressional Republicans over-interpreted election results as a repudiation of the prior presidential election. They attempted to substitute their agenda for that of the Democratic president of the day. In 2010, for example, Republicans not only tried to repeal the Affordable Care Act. They also attempted to impose their own 20-year economic plan, on threat of national default if the president resisted.

Republicans lost these trials of strength—and then proceeded to lose the national election that followed. Midterm elections aren’t truly national elections. One-third of those who cast a ballot in 2010 were older than 60 years of age. The message that wins that cohort will not necessarily—or even probably—resonate with the larger electorate. That was certainly true in 2010. Republicans emerged from that triumph energized to preserve Medicare for current beneficiaries and cut benefits for everybody else. Then came 2012—and "everybody else” arrived at the polls to vote Democratic.

Midterm-election results can seriously mislead a party about the extent of its mandate. About 44.8 million people cast a Republican ballot in the House elections of 2010, while 69.5 million voted for Barack Obama two years before. When it comes time to go toe-to-toe with the president, that legitimacy differential should be kept in mind.

2) Don’t overdo scandal politics. Congress has a duty to oversee the executive branch. Republicans understandably want answers on many issues from the Obama administration, especially on issues—from Ebola to ISIS—where previous White House statements have been, ahem, overtaken by events. Congressional Republicans should keep in mind, however, that only in the rarest cases do Washington commotions connect to anything that matters much to anyone other than the most intensely partisan voters. That’s not to say that these investigations don’t matter. Often they do, as crucial elements of the self-correction of the political system. It’s just that they don’t matter anywhere near as much as the fundamentals: national security, economic management, personal opportunity. If the party holding Congress finds itself demanding, “Where’s the outrage?,” odds are that the outrage will be found among those citizens who wonder why that party is ignoring their concerns to pursue its own.

3) Don’t cater to donors. The very rich are different from you and me, and so are Republican donors. Republican donors want upper-income tax cuts, immigration amnesty, higher interest rates, big cuts in social-insurance programs, and an array of other measures that diverge widely from the preferences of the typical voter. On some issues, Republican donors may have good arguments behind them; on others, less so. The rub is this: A president can join many different issues into a broad program, supported by a truly national message. George W. Bush, for example, could send tax cuts and education reform to Congress together, under the shared rubric of enhancing opportunity for all Americans.

Congress, however, is much more susceptible to pressure from small but cohesive interest groups. Unless party leaders strongly determine to go slow on meeting donor demand, they may discover individual members acting in ways that brand the whole party as a tool of special interests and the wealthy. Nearly 50 percent of House members and 30 percent of Senators belong to the caucus that speaks for private aircraft owners. That caucus has a long list of demands it is itching to act on, including lowering user fees to shift more of the costs of flying onto the general public. Don’t listen.

* * *

On the other hand, here are three things that a Republican majority in Congress should do:

4) Act in specific, visible ways to detoxify the party’s image. The proposal by many GOP Senate candidates to redesignate the birth-control pill as an over-the-counter medication as a way of reaching women is a brilliant example of the technique. Yet there’s more to do. Endorsing measures to restrict the availability of firearms to persons under restraining orders or who have been found guilty of misdemeanor domestic violence would also send a strong message that Republicans hear and understand women’s concerns. Republicans need to attend and honor holidays and ceremonies of growing ethnocultural communities. Support for shorter prison sentences, more humane conditions in prison, diversion rather than incarceration for drug offenders, and demilitarization of local police officers—all command growing support within the Republican Party, and all would change the party’s image where it most needs changing.

5) Use investigations to showcase the most glaring defects of Obama-administration policy. This is especially true of the shriveling of America’s over-committed, under-resourced military. In his first term, Obama escalated the war in Afghanistan and launched a new war in Libya. Now he has undertaken a new war against ISIS. Yet back in March, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel declared, "For the first time in 13 years, we will be presenting a budget to the Congress of the United States that's not a war-footing budget."

Presumably, supplemental budget requests will soon be sent to Congress. Yet even as operational costs surge, the U.S. is continuing to shrink its combat capability to an army of 420,000 active-duty soldiers and a Marine Corps of 175,000, the smallest force since 1940. The strong public support for the anti-ISIS campaign confirms that the American people still expect their country to react to international-security threats. That capacity is being degraded. Congressional Republicans have not been blameless in this drawdown. Now is the chance for them to prove again that the Republican Party is the party of national security.

6) Congress is a bad place from which to start things—see point 1—but it’s a great place from which to stop them. Administrations have much of their impact in the hundreds of small bureaucratic initiatives they can launch.

Here is one highly relevant example: The Obama administration has invested energy and resources to promote pre-kindergarten education. It is determined not only that the federal government should fund this education, but also that it should set rules and regulations to ensure that this education is provided by graduates of teacher’s colleges, at the same high rate of pay now earned by unionized teachers. It’s hard to avoid the impression that for the Obama administration, universal pre-kindergarten is as much or more a jobs program as it is an education program. Congress can act to slow and stop this expansion until a GOP administration is ready to propose a more flexible, innovative, and affordable concept.

It’s a quirk of national politics that the more expensive and intrusive a program is, the less the voting public seems to care about its details. Everybody has an opinion on how universities should deal with campus rape, but industries from energy to health care are being reshaped by regulations written in an obscurity that conceals their detail from the vast majority of Americans better than outright secrecy ever could. This is where the next Congress will find its work—not in high-stakes battle over philosophical abstractions.