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Requiem for a Republican Revolution

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Opinion pieces and speeches by EPI staff and associates.

THIS PIECE ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN NEW YORK NEWSDAY ON NOVEMBER 15, 1998.

Requiem for a Republican Revolution 

By Ruy Teixeira

Whatever happened to the conservative revolution? Contrary to virtually all predictions for the 1998 election, the Democrats held their own in the Senate and governor’s races and actually picked up five seats in the House. The latter outcome defied historical precedent: in this century, the average loss for the president’s party six years into an administration has been 38 seats.

Indeed, this outcome was so shocking to Congressional Republicans, who had high hopes for the 1998 election, that Newt Gingrich was forced to resign as Speaker of the House or face a bloody rebellion in the Republican ranks. Quite a change since 1994, when Republicans swept into power in the House with a 52-seat pickup and a revolutionary “Contract with America” that sought to radically cut back the size of Federal government!

The Revolution Turned Back: 1994-1996

How did this happen? Start with the simple fact that, after 1994, Newt Gingrich and the Congressional Republicans greatly overestimated their mandate. Victorious Republicans genuinely believed US voters had taken an ideological turn against government and would support wholesale deregulation and dismantling of government programs.

This view was fundamentally mistaken. Rather than taking an ideological turn against government, voters turned on the Democrats because operationally government did not seem to be working: living standards had continued to stagnate, other social problems had failed to improve even as government expenditures continued apace and massive new programs were being proposed (the Clinton health care plan) that seemed bureaucratic and unworkable. Given this assessment, it was time, reasoned voters in 1994, to get rid of the Democrats and their style of government and try something different.

But different in their view did not mean getting rid of, or even significantly trimming, government programs they liked. Once it became apparent that such cuts would be included in the Republican version of budget balancing, voters began to lose their enthusiasm for the Republican revolution. This loss of enthusiasm then set the stage for the Democratic comeback in late 1995, driven by confrontations with the Republicans on budget issues, the government shutdown, etc.

It’s easy to see how this confrontation strategy worked. Voters essentially “fired” the Democrats in 1994 because they had failed to make significant progress in solving the voters’ economic and other problems. But the Republicans, instead of solving these problems, now threatened to make things even worse! On top of continued stagnation in living standards, they were proposing to remove environmental safeguards, defund education programs, including school lunches, and, most important of all, cut Medicare, a critical part of most voters’ economic security (current or future). And, to add insult to injury, they were proposing to reward the rich with new tax cuts. This was simply unacceptable to most voters. Indeed, what the Republicans succeeded in doing was to make themselves seem more of a threat to voters’ living standards and economic security than the Democrats and big government previously had been.

The result: Clinton’s victory in 1996 and a gain of 10 seats for Democrats in the House. And the conservative revolution has continued to disintegrate since then.

The Revolution Disintegrates: 1996-1998

In the aftermath of the 1996 election, it became apparent that Republicans were not going to adapt easily to the turning back of the conservative revolution. Far from it. While some conservatives saw the need for moderate accommodation to the mood of the electorate including, to some extent, Gingrich himself others did not. For these true believers, the most that could be said against the conservative revolution was that some tactical blunders were made. But the basic idea remained sound.

In addition, the cracks in the Republican coalition around social issues became more apparent. The Bauer/Dobson wing of the party was not about to back down on their conservative social agenda and they, too, continued to insist that their agenda was basically sound and popular. But other Republicans were not so sure and wanted to do some serious softening of the Republican image on social issues.

To add to Republican woes, the economy, which started to really click right before the 1996 election, had a very good two years in the 1996-98 period, combining strong overall economic growth with low unemployment and some of the largest gains in real wages seen in several decades. This did a lot to erase the low-level economic discontent Republicans took advantage of in 1994 and turn it into its opposite: contentment, and, hence, support for the incumbent Democrats.

Finally, to put it as simply as possible: the conservative agenda just isn’t very popular. While it would be a mistake to say that the U.S. public has lost its suspicion of national government and national government initiatives, the public just doesn’t buy the conservative, get-rid-of-as-much government approach to key issues like education, Social Security and health care. As the data in Table 1 illustrate, the Democrats enjoy a huge advantage on these issues of from 21-33 percentage points. Indeed, combined with the public’s distaste for Republican proclivities for regulating morality, up to and including behavior in the Oval Office, this goes a long way toward explaining the Republican’s stunningly poor showing in the 1998 elections.

The Revolution Dies?: 1998-2000

So where does the conservative revolution go from here? If they’ve got any sense, nowhere. As the President might put it: “That dog just won’t hunt.” But they may not be able to help themselves. Despite the example of the Republican governors who collectively make a good case that the center of gravity of American political discourse is a sort of pragmatic Republicanism, they may simply have too many true-believers to pull themselves back from the brink.

Here’s something that should make them think. The reason they did so well in 1994 was because of unusually high support among whites, particularly whites of low to moderate income and education. The huge landslide among whites in that year countered the basic Republican electoral weakness: essentially no support among blacks and very little support among Hispanics and union household voters.

Indeed, the fact that Democrats start every election with this large core (about one-third of voters) whose support they can rely on means that, in an election like 1998, when Republicans merely had a medium-sized landslide among whites (57 % of the two party House vote), they can actually lose ground!
A successful Republican coalition is therefore going to have to include some of the Democrat’s minority/union base, as well as some of the whites scared away by intransigent conservatism. Thus, the death of the conservative revolution may be dictated by very simple arithmetic: it’s either ditch the revolution or give up on having an electoral majority.

Ruy Teixeira is the Director of the Politics and Public Opinion Program at the Economic Policy Institute. He is the author of the forthcoming The Forgotten Majority: The New Whi
te Working Class and the Next American Politics
(Basic Books).

See more work by Ruy A. Teixeira