Democrats Hope to Avoid Pitfalls of 1994

Posted January 22, 2009 at 1:48pm

For the first time in 16 years, Democrats control the White House, the Senate and the House of Representatives. So while it’s hard to remember a time when optimism among the party faithful has ever been this high, a few voices of caution can still be heard.

That’s because looking ahead to the 2010 election, the greatest fear of some Democrats — and the greatest hope of some Republicans — is that it will turn out to be another 1994.

As a result, a few Democrats are urging their colleagues to remember their history, beware of overconfidence and study the lessons embodied in former Rep. Jack Brooks (D-Texas).

Brooks was a 21-term Member who was chairman of the Judiciary Committee during the 1994 election cycle. He would have been dean of the House had he returned to Congress in 1995, but Steve Stockman (R) had other ideas.

Stockman should have had no chance of winning his race against the fearsome, cigar-chomping Democrat who had been in the House for four decades — he had already lost to him in 1990 and 1992. But Brooks became a symbol of the excesses of Democratic rule during the 103rd Congress.

Brooks had long been a fierce opponent of gun control. But under pressure from the new Democratic administration — and seeing the opportunity to tack on a multimillion-dollar pork-barrel measure for his alma matter, Lamar University — Brooks pushed a controversial anti-crime package that included gun control measures through his Judiciary Committee and voted for it on the floor.

The next fall, pro-gun groups targeted Brooks — who they had once endorsed — for his support of new gun laws. Republicans successfully dubbed the new federal regulations and the pork that came with it as examples of what Democratic rule at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue meant. It became a major theme of the 1994 elections and in the end House Republicans saw a 54-seat swing in their favor, ousting 34 incumbent Democrats in the process. (After beating Brooks in 1994, Stockman would lose to a Democrat two years later.)

Democrats lost eight Senate seats that year, and 1994 went down in the history books as one of the greatest Republican victories of all time.

Voter dissatisfaction with the first two years of Bill Clinton’s presidency was a big part of why Democrats lost. But Republicans in Congress also took advantage “of what turned out to be political vulnerabilities that the Democrats had pretty much created for themselves,” said former Sen. Bob Graham (Fla.), who served as chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee during the 1994 cycle.

Graham said the lessons of history are too clear and too recent for President Barack Obama or his partners in Congress to make the mistakes of overconfidence, hubris and arrogance that so doomed Democrats in 1994.

Obama “cannot only look to 1994 for the Democrats, but he can look at 1998 and 2000 and 2006 for the Republicans where their arrogance and hubris not only took the party down to the minority status but almost all the people who were identified with the revolution of 1994 were similarly taken down,” Graham said.

To avoid such pitfalls this cycle, Graham’s advice to Democratic leaders is to first and foremost become less partisan and invite Republicans to be real partners in shaping policy. It’s a monumental task but one that is actually helped by the sheer depth of the current economic crisis, Graham said.

When it comes to the state of the economy, “everyone agrees this isn’t a case where the Democrats have a dug-in ideological position which based on their assessment of history has shown that it works. Or that the Republicans have a dug-in ideological position that they believe is demonstrably superior,” Graham said.

“The fact is we are like Christopher Columbus — we just dropped our ropes off the pier and have headed out over an ocean that nobody has tried to travel before in terms of the complexity of the problem, the uncertainty of the solutions and the global component and context of our economic issues,” he said. “Everybody is going to have to be prepared to take some chances with the unknown, and it will better if Democrats and Republicans are in the same boat.”

But if Democratic leaders in Congress choose to reach out to their GOP brethren, there is a way to do it without unnecessarily or recklessly putting their own Members in jeopardy, senior Democrats believe.

Back in 1994, Democrats “were very much inclined to be helpful to President Clinton, and at times our loyalty to the president and that desire to see his goals achieved put some of our Members in jeopardy,” said former Rep. Vic Fazio (Calif.), who served as Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chairman that cycle. Fazio said that a number of Democratic Members who lived through the 1994 cycle now realize that “while there were a lot of very courageous votes cast, they were not always votes that needed to be imposed on Members.”

The key is to balance the need to deliver for the American people with the need to make sure that Democrats can successfully justify their votes to their constituents back home, he said. “Part of the reason we lost the majority in 1994 was because some people voted for things that just weren’t acceptable in their districts.”

In the 111th Congress, more than 80 House Democrats hail from what could be considered “Republican” districts, and Fazio said Democrats need to remember that those Members are the ones who have given Democrats their majority over the course of the past two election cycles.

Current DCCC Chairman Chris Van Hollen (Md.) seemed to acknowledge that point in a recent interview.

“Voters will be asking, ‘Is the Congress following through on its commitments and are the Members following through on their promises?’” Van Hollen said. “If you can demonstrate to the American people that we are working to address the major problems of the day, that will be the best thing we can do moving forward.”

But Democrats can be certain that Republicans will be watching their agenda, and every Democrat’s vote, very closely.

“A key factor in the 2010 elections will be the extent to which the president is successful in making sure [Speaker Nancy] Pelosi and [Senate Majority Leader Harry] Reid govern from the middle and include Republicans in the process, or whether they ignore his calls for bipartisanship and govern from the left,” National Republican Senatorial Committee spokesman Brian Walsh said. “If they overplay their hand and look to pay off their union friends before protecting small businesses and middle-class families, they will be handing Republicans a critical campaign issue.”