November 15, 1994
Alan W. Dowd
The elections of November 8, 1994, left an indelible imprint on the political landscape. A sitting Speaker of the House was ousted for the first time since the Civil War. The Republican Party wrested control of thirteen statehouses, and now controls thirty of the fifty governorships. Alabama Senator Richard Shelby’s decision to switch from the "party of dependency...to the party of hope" highlighted the GOP’s emerging strength in the South, as well as the Democratic Party’s rapid self-destruction. Thanks to Shelby’s defection and seven other gains, the GOP holds a 53-47 edge in the Senate. And most remarkably, the Republicans own a majority in the House of Representatives for the first time since 1954. The current tally is 229-204, with two seats still in doubt. The lessons of this conservative revolution are many.
Term Limits the Old-Fashioned Way
One of the great lessons of 1994 is that incumbency and the economic advantage it brings do not ensure re-election. The electorate lashed out at incumbent candidates and shattered the long-held myth that only external agents (i.e., term limits) can break the power of careerist politicians.
Consider that over thirty House incumbents and two Senate incumbents were defeated. The electorate decided the political fates of such notables as Foley, Brooks, Rostenkowski, Sasser, and Cuomo. Speaker Foley outspent his Republican challenger by a 3-1 margin. Congressmen Brooks and Rostenkowski brought their districts billions of dollars in federal projects but lost to political unknowns. Senator Sasser, who had enough political savvy and seniority to be the front-runner in the race for Senate majority leader, lost to a middle-aged doctor that didn’t even vote until he was 35. And after 12 years of funneling New York’s tax revenues to a cartel of public unions, decaying school systems, irresponsible local governments, and other Democratic interest groups, Governor Cuomo was thrown out of office.
While the old-fashioned brand of term limits proved quite effective in 1994, legislation mandating term limits also gained wide support. The GOP made term limits a cornerstone of its national campaign, and Republican leaders have vowed to bring term limits legislation to the House floor during the first three months of the next Congress. Referenda limiting terms passed in seven states, pushing to 22 the number of states that have term limits on US Representatives and Senators.
A New Force in American Politics
Voters between 18 and 30 years of age played an important role in the elections of 1994. Their grandparents (the World War II generation) and parents (the postwar generation) heavily outnumber them, but members of this "post-postwar" generation flexed their collective political muscle on November 8.
If this election is any indication of things to come, the Republican Party has found a new generation to serve as its power-base, just as Lyndon Johnson’s Democrats did in 1964 and 1966. According to exit polling data, over 70% of the post-postwar generation voted for Republican candidates, which should not come as a surprise. With their formative years coinciding with the Reagan presidency, America’s youngest block of voters identifies more with the GOP’s message of individual responsibility and smaller government than with the Democrats’ outmoded themes of social welfare and entitlement, more with liberty than with sameness, more with the Right than with the Left.
Perhaps the post-postwar generation--so often maligned by its activist elders in the media and elsewhere for being uninvolved--is not so directionless, not so detached, not so oblivious after all.
The Collapse of Modern Liberalism?
Some observers have called this election the beginning of the end of modern liberalism. But to do this is to misread the results of November 8. The election may mark the moderation of the electorate or even a rightward re-alignment, but it is not the end of New Deal-Great Society liberalism.
Just as the Democratic rout of Goldwater’s GOP did not bury conservatism, nor has the Republican whipping of what continues to be a party centered on the policies of Johnson, vanquished big-government liberalism. While there are fewer Democrats in Congress, there is a much higher concentration of liberal Democrats. While new government programs such as nationalized, centrally-managed health care have been delayed, they have not been defeated. And while the rhetoric of smaller, less intrusive government has been embraced (as it was 1988 and 1992, only to be forgotten by presidents and voters alike), government bureaucracies continue to swell, government regulations continue to limit freedom, and government’s share of personal income increases. Not even Reagan could reverse the expansion of government. It is doubtful that Gingrich and Dole--with only slight majorities--will be able to finish off modern liberalism without a devout Reaganite (or perhaps Goldwaterite) as president.
The Referendum on Reagan
In the weeks leading up to the election, the White House asked the American people to make November 8th a referendum on Ronald Reagan and the 1980s. Vice President Al Gore went one step further, perhaps one step too far, calling the election a referendum on the Clinton presidency. The results of this double referendum were unmistakable.
Clinton and the policies of government activism were rebuked. The idea that government should have a limitless reach--from setting hiring practices for small business, to rehabilitating sociopaths, to dispersing birth control devices, to rationing health care, to disarming the law-abiding public--was rejected.
While the Clinton Democrats targeted the policies of Reagan and ideas of Goldwater, the Republicans rallied around them. GOP candidates promised smaller government, economic opportunity, an end to class warfare, genuine anti-crime initiatives, and a renewal of American foreign policy, just as Goldwater urged and Reagan pursued. America responded, and conservatism completed its comeback.
The next two years will tell if 1994 was the end of the conservative revolt against oversized government--which began decades ago with Barry Goldwater’s sober criticism of FDR’s emerging welfare state--or merely the resumption of that revolution. If the balance of power shifts again in 1996, then we will know that this year was the end of the revolt. But the imprints of today will remain: the post-revolution Democrats will finally reconsider the policies of big-government liberalism, and the Republican Party will finally become a legitimate, lasting force in Congressional and gubernatorial politics.
However, if in 1996, the Republicans consolidate the gains of 1994, then the conservative principles of Reagan and Goldwater will move from the periphery to the center of America’s political dialogue. And the GOP will become the majority party in American politics, setting the agenda, shaping the future, and hopefully dismantling the relics of FDR’s New Deal and LBJ’s Great Society.
Senator Barry Goldwater took the first difficult steps of this Conservative Comeback in 1960, when he predicted that some day Americans would end their march toward government dependency, and decide to reduce government, to extend freedom, to repeal outdated programs, and to return responsibility to the national vocabulary. That day may finally have arrived.