OPINION — In 1994, Republicans did something really big.
At the height of the midterm elections that year, on Sept. 27, House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich and a Republican Conference driven by conservative change agents, offered the American electorate a policy document called the “Contract With America.”
Friday marks the 25th anniversary of the signing of that contract on the steps of the U.S. Capitol. A few weeks later, Republicans won the House, ending a losing streak that dated back to 1954. That victory remains one of the most important events in American political history, an unexpected election outcome that dramatically changed the direction of the country.
Gingrich was one of those rare political leaders whose vision and strength of personality could change not only the course of a nation but the lives of its people in direct and positive ways. His victory, however, didn’t come easy.
It was a long journey for a man who had spent years in the political wilderness as a backbencher, driving what he saw as an “opportunity agenda,” anchored in policy, that could serve as a means to effect political change. For him, it was all about content and communicating the value of that content.
Here’s what I wrote in a piece for The Ripon Forum on the contract’s 20th anniversary:
Gingrich “embraced the idea that voters want something to vote for, not simply a reason to vote against the other candidate or party. The contract was more doctrine than a communications message. It offered voters change that could actually happen and would work. It was a realistic, doable political document that served as an organizing principle for a radical change in campaign strategy.
“1994 was all about issue content and political context for candidates and voters. It gave candidates the ability to talk in national terms about bigger picture issues and gave the party consistency across districts. It also helped the party develop the financial resources to win the kind of historic victory Republicans would need to take control of the House.”
But to succeed, Gingrich had to both go up against another tough politician in President Bill Clinton and his well-entrenched party and take on two key Republican political doctrines. First, the old canard that “all politics is local,” a maxim made famous by an earlier speaker of the House, Tip O’Neill. Second, he challenged the equally ingrained campaign tenet that you never give the other side something to shoot at. In other words, don’t put policy on the table.
Gingrich rejected the consulting community’s conventional wisdom and nationalized the 1994 congressional election by giving voters a governing document in the form of the contract that laid out what a Republican majority would do if given the opportunity to lead. The third Republican campaign doctrine in play at the time (and continuing today) that was not addressed in 1994 — that negative campaigns, not good policies, win elections — would spell the end of his speakership four years later.
Real and significant change
The takeaways from the 1994 GOP victory about what works and what doesn’t in campaign politics are important. But it’s what Republicans did with the victory that matters more as we reflect on the contract’s 25th anniversary. For Republicans after the election, the contract gave them the means to deliver a record of accomplishments that were real and significant and showed the value of conservative economic principles.
In their first two years, Republicans slowed the expansion of government and Clinton in his 1996 State of the Union famously acknowledged, “The era of big government is over.” It was a remarkable moment for Gingrich and his caucus, leaving many in the press to comment that Clinton sounded more like a Republican.
This achievement was shortly followed by welfare reform. Then in 1997, Republicans pushed through tax cuts that reflected many of the principles laid out by another conservative thinker, Jack Kemp. Not surprisingly, critics said it would increase the deficit by $400 billion over ten years.
But the tax cuts didn’t push the country into bankruptcy. To the contrary, in 1998, the budget was balanced for the first time since 1969 and stayed in balance through 2001. In fact, the country actually ran a surplus of $236 billion in 2000.
On top of that, economic growth was 4 percent or higher from 1997 through 2000, an extraordinary four consecutive years, and unemployment rates, which had been above 7 percent at the beginning of the decade, fell to under 5 percent in 1997. By the end of 2000, the rate was under 4 percent. For three consecutive years, 1997 through 1999, the economy produced more than 3 million jobs each year, a record that still stands.
The policy accomplishments of the Republican-controlled 104th Congress were remarkable. Convincing the Democratic president to get on board with a center-right Republican approach to economic growth produced one the most robust economic periods in American history.
But rather than running on this remarkable success, Republican political operatives in 1998 opted to attack Clinton, mired in political scandal, telling voters that the country should not reward him for “not telling the truth.” To say it didn’t work is an understatement.
Exit polls showed Republicans ended the 1998 campaign, despite a great economy, with 41 percent of voters approving of the job they were doing compared to 55 percent disapproving. In contrast, Clinton’s job approval rating was at 55 percent with 43 percent disapproving, even though he had a personal favorability rating of just 35 percent to 61 percent unfavorable. Those who approved of the job Clinton was doing but had an unfavorable view of him personally (20 percent of the electorate) voted Democratic by a 62 percent to 35 percent margin. The exit polls also showed the electorate opposed impeachment, 33 percent to 63 percent.
In the lead-up to the 1998 election, Republican political operatives insisted the party would win 20 to 30 House seats. Instead, Democrats picked up 5 — a historical anomaly given that sitting presidents usually lose a significant number of House seats in the sixth year of their presidencies.
The political victory produced by the Contract With America in 1994 led to six years of significant policy successes for Gingrich and the Republican majority and showed that Republican principles can produce results that dramatically improve the country. But not taking credit for that success and instead focusing on the personal weaknesses of Clinton and de facto impeachment, unfortunately, allowed the late ’90s to become “Bill Clinton’s economy,” something that has haunted Republicans for decades and continues today.
As we look back at the 25th anniversary, Republicans should celebrate the moment and take satisfaction that Republican principles and policies provided for one of the most robust economies in our history, not unlike today. But they should also recognize that political miscalculation cost them crucial seats in the House in 1998 and an eerily similar strategic miscalculation cost them the majority in 2018, even with the winds of a good and growing economy at their backs.
David Winston is the president of The Winston Group and a longtime adviser to congressional Republicans. He previously served as the director of planning for Speaker Newt Gingrich. He advises Fortune 100 companies, foundations, and nonprofit organizations on strategic planning and public policy issues, and is an election analyst for CBS News.