While Republicans are investing much energy in the presidential race
they may be losing sight of the other half of the equation. Regardless
of whether they win the White House, their ability to effect meaningful
change will be severely limited unless they also recapture Congress.
Many assume that a strong presidential candidate will usher in
congressional majorities on his coattails. I’m afraid it’s not going to
be that simple. Republicans have a slim 10-member majority in the House,
which means that if they lose more than five seats to Democrats, their
majority will evaporate.
What’s more troubling is that at this point, Democrats are the
statistical favorites at least to win back the House. That’s because
only six Democrats are retiring, compared with 21 Republicans, giving a
strong advantage of incumbency to the Democrats. Dick Gephardt is
foaming at the mouth to be majority leader.
Though there is no way to completely avoid the nitty-gritty election
battles in every congressional district, Republicans have one weapon to
neutralize the Democrats’ incumbency advantage. They must try to
nationalize the congressional elections.
Prior to Newt Gingrich’s 1994 Contract With America, congressional
elections were largely local elections. But with a unified message
(aided by universal horror about Hillary’s universal health care), Newt
was able to convert those elections to nationwide status.
The landscape is different now. Because of Congress’ performance
against Bill Clinton, the GOP has lost substantial credibility.
Grass-roots cynicism is quite pronounced, with many disenchanted and
others considering third parties. And while some may shudder at the
prospect of yet another year of gamesmanship between Clinton and
Congress, we should look to this year as an opportunity for
congressional redemption. If they perform admirably this year, GOP
voters will most likely forgive past indiscretions.
Admittedly, the Republican Congress has disappointed many in the last
five years, but in their defense, they have not enjoyed a real majority.
Their slim numerical majority was more than outweighed by liberals among
their ranks. And even when they could muster a majority, they were
entirely stalemated by a recalcitrant president. Republicans must be
prepared to communicate these facts in this election cycle.
Efforts to nationalize congressional elections will be met with the
conventional wisdom of political commentators, who uniformly preach that
the American voters consciously choose divided government, i.e.,
different parties in control of the executive and legislative branches.
This assumes that voters factor this in when they vote. With the
exception of 1994, I don’t believe this for a second.
For Republicans to hold their base, they must project a sharply
contrasting message from that of Bill Clinton. For starters, they should
anticipate the inevitable budget war that will occur toward the latter
half of this year. With surpluses guaranteed to be even greater than
earlier expected, Clinton will be unusually ambitious in devising novel
uses for federal expenditures.
To Clinton, surpluses are a license for more spending and an excuse
to ignore existing problems, such as Social Security and Medicare. Why
forge a long-term solution for Social Security solvency when you can
just siphon funds from general revenue?
To Republicans, surpluses should represent one simple truth: The
American people have been overtaxed and deserve their money back. If the
votes don’t exist to override a presidential veto of their tax cuts then
they should allow the money to be applied to the national debt by
default. But they should never accede to new spending initiatives, even
as part of some compromise. They must remember that new federal
programs, such as Clinton’s proposed prescription drug benefits for
Medicare recipients, never end and never diminish.
Congress must not negotiate with Clinton on the budget, especially in
this election year, but just pass its bills, and let him exercise his
veto power. It will save a great deal of time, effort and agony.
Beyond an improved congressional showing, the surest way for
Republicans to succeed in nationalizing the races in their favor is to
convey to the voters what a Democratic takeover will mean:
full-throttled-liberalism. Charles Rangel will chair Ways and Means,
John Conyers the Judiciary Committee and Henry Waxman the Government
Reform Committee. That ought to be enough to scare the socks off of