Bringing Down The House – Part One
The 1994 "Contract with America" was a masterstroke of political genius. The crafters of that document shook up the calcified inner workings of the Republican Party with its return to the bold daring that defined the party under President Ronald Reagan.
Many outspoken Republican congressional incumbents, including Newt Gingrich of Georgia and John Kasich of Ohio, worked side by side with aspiring congressional candidates like Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, and our very own Robert Ehrlich of Maryland in 1994.
Why? Because they cleverly understood that a set of unified ideas was a more powerful political tool than an individual state district cause-de-jour candidate. In short, a position more often than not overcomes a personality in an issue based campaign.
The rank and file Republican base had grown tired of traditionally losing national congressional elections. Many conservative activists within the party, and countless strategic thinkers outside of it, faced the same scenario. The Republican Party needed a big win in a post-Reagan era if it was to be relevant in the William Jefferson Clinton era.
A complete revolt from the grassroots was not far away if the Republican leadership continued to trot out the same failed strategy that had ended in multiple congressional defeats and the arrival of Bill Clinton into the Oval Office. The party knew that it would need to offer more to the average voter than it had in previous election.
The excitement inspired by some Republican congressional candidates in the early ‘90s was akin to watching paint dry. Many were a marvelous compilation of focus group tested images that strived to painfully encapsulate everything necessary for an appeal to soft Democrats. So called moderate districts needed to be addressed. Many Republican candidates were manufactured by image consultants and donors to be deliciously flavorless. Needless to say, these candidates consistently lost.
After 40 years of Democratic Party rule in the House of Representatives, Republicans were forced to realize that what they had been doing wasn't working. The fall of a Republican Party's traditional dependence on politically focused Madison Avenue-styled think tank steering was a foregone conclusion. The sooner, the better.
Many obscure conservative Republican activists searched for a way to break the 40-year Democrat stranglehold on the House of Representatives. Many plans were modeled along geographic lines. Those traditionally failed to drive voter turnout in midterm elections.
The solution presented itself when the Congressional Republican caucus gathered together in a display of rare unity on the Capitol Steps. The proposal was simple. A national gamble on a hunch that might end in political disaster.
That proposed hunch was that a policy agenda could wield the excitement needed to turnout a large number of Republican voters in a midterm election. The hunch was predicted on the idea that a result-driven and coordinated effort by all the Republican candidates could drive up voter turnout.
The plan depended on policy agenda that would start a political wildfire, one capable of spreading from sea to shining sea. Individual candidates were just humble messengers of a plan to move America forward. The 1994 midterms turned into a presidential election with the Contract with America as the national candidate.
The lynchpin of this revolutionary strategy rested in the use of clear and concise language that could appeal to breakfast table and watercooler conversations. The marketing would require turning an academic policy paper into a soundbite driven campaign.
Only plain language and concise articulation of policy could rally both Republicans and Independents across the country. The plan ultimately worked and the risk was rewarded. Democrats lost a 40-year House majority which culminated in what many hoped was a restoration of Republican relevance in Congress.
There are many lessons in this history of which our current Republicans in Congress should be mindful.
Part Two next week.