A lot of Republicans around the country and perhaps even a few here in Washington are beginning to wonder if the way they feel now is how Democrats felt in 1994.
The Republicans know that at the very least they’re starting to sound a lot like many Democrats did back then. At receptions we are beginning to assure each other that, while we might lose a few House and Senate seats, there isn’t any real danger that we’ll get wiped out. After all, there aren’t that many House seats at risk, what with gerrymandering and all and, besides, even if people don’t much like Congress, most of them still like their own congressman.
It was former Speaker Tip O’Neill (D-Mass.) who said that all politics is local, and he was a pretty smart fellow for a Democrat. So even though it’s good to run scared, we shouldn’t lose sleep worrying about a political tsunami. That sort of thing only happens once in a lifetime, and while there are storm clouds out there they haven’t come together yet to create the sort of perfect political storm required to wreak the havoc that swept the Democrats out back then.
Oh, we have our scandals, with one congressman getting ready to do some hard time and a few more biting their fingernails every time they pass the Justice Department, but voters don’t seem to be any more anti-Washington, -incumbent or -Republican than usual. And besides, there are at least as many ethically crippled Democrats wandering the halls of the House and Senate as Republicans.
Besides, the voters were a lot more upset then than they are now. The Democratic coalition had been crumbling for years; the Democratic leadership was completely out of touch with its base and didn’t see the storm building until it was way too late. Our guys, on the other hand, are pretty smart and have plenty of time to get their act together.
The polls don’t look all that good, but then who can believe them anyway? The president’s approval rating seems to have tanked, but why would Republican voters take their frustration with him out on their congressman or senator when most of them are doing just about all they can to put just a little distance between themselves and the White House.
Of course, Democrats tried to do the same thing in 1994, but it didn’t work and they were forced to stand by as the anti-Washington anger that swept the country that spring morphed into an anti-Democratic tide by fall.
Many of us had a hard time believing what was happening even as it was happening. A number of us gathered for our traditional Election Day lunch that year and, as was our habit, threw a few bucks on the table with the pot going to whoever came closest to predicting what would happen once the votes were counted. We all knew, of course, that Republicans were would pick up seats, but few of us grasped the magnitude of what was going on.
Bob Novak was optimistic but didn’t predict a GOP takeover, and Mark Shields dismissed such an outcome as typical Republican wishful thinking. He reminded us that most people like their own congressman and repeated the mantra about all politics being local.
I was optimistic and like most the others present predicted a GOP gain, perhaps thirty-five House seats. Then everyone turned to Michael Barone, who had written a few months earlier that there was at least a chance that the Republicans could win the 40 seats needed to take the House.
If Barone isn’t the most astute analyst of such things out there I don’t know who is, and we all looked at him knowing this. He calmly predicted a Republican pickup of 52 to 54 seats, and when we gasped he said that he’d go through the races district by district if we’d like.
In actuality, the Republicans gained 52 seats, Barone won the pot and the rest, as they say, is history.
This year, Barone is cautioning Republicans not to panic this early, pointing out that November is a long way off and that the 1994 trend wasn’t clear until much closer to Election Day. This, he says, gives Republicans a chance to avoid the disaster that struck the Democrats two decades ago.
As a Republican, I hope he’s right, but he is assuming that GOP leaders are capable of learning from the past and acting in concert to avoid disaster, and that’s a big assumption.
If Yogi Berra were around, I think he might say that what’s happening is beginning to feel like d