Some political pundits are speculating that the Democrats are poised to retake control of the House of Representatives this fall, much like the GOP did in 1994, when it dramatically ended 40 years of Democratic control. As a proud member of 1994's "New Majority" Republican class in the House, I understand the historic dimensions of that victory and the dynamics that made it possible. I also know why neither will apply to the elections in November. Those who predict a Democratic takeover of the House are wrong--but maybe by just a couple of years.
In the summer of 1994 I was a congressional challenger trying to persuade skeptical voters (and sometimes myself) that my run against a sitting speaker of the House was more than just a long shot. No sitting speaker, after all, had been defeated since before the Civil War. But the more I campaigned, the more I sensed that voters were ready for change. As I walked the main streets and worked the coffee shops and neighborhoods of eastern Washington state, I met more and more restless people. They were frustrated with Washington, D.C., and weary of a Congress that seemed more enthusiastic about scoring points in political gamesmanship than actually getting anything done.
But voter unrest does not by itself portend wholesale electoral change. Even disgruntled Americans are reluctant to "fire" incumbents if they think they're just trading in one pol for another, regardless of party. That's the lesson of 1994.
Led by Newt Gingrich, the GOP candidates that year responded to the disillusionment of voters with the refreshing and specific ideas of the Contract with America. They proved that voters are drawn to issues and genuine political leadership, even in the absence of complete ideological agreement. In my own case, the voters in my district seemed electrified by the positive promise of specific policy proposals related to issues they cared about--fiscal responsibility, ensuring the safety of our homes and streets and schools, securing family values, family-oriented tax policies, strong national defense and commonsense legal reforms. And this was not just a Republican phenomenon. The Contract spoke to a wide cross-section of all voters.
The problem the democrats have is few ideas. The problem the republicans have is that we lost our ideas that gave us the majority in the first place. If we want to keep our majority, we need to go back where we came from.