How Do You Stop an Elephant Charging?

Democrats are running out of time to find an answer.

Eight weeks out and you don’t have to be a political professional to feel what’s in the air: The Republicans have a big win coming.

The question in the House races is: Will they get to 218? Will Republicans pick up the 39 seats they need to win control of the 435-member chamber?

Another way of asking: Is this 1994 again?

That year the Republicans swept the House races, picking up 52 seats and getting, for the first time in 40 years, a Republican majority and a Republican speaker, Newt Gingrich. Even then-Speaker Tom Foley (D., Wash.), lost his seat that year. (Speaker Nancy Pelosi is famously in no danger—she won her seat with 72 % of the vote in 2008—but it probably means something that she appears to have gone missing from the national scene. CBS, in March, had her at 11% approval among registered voters.)

A Gallup survey of registered voters this week had Republicans beating Democrats in a generic ballot by 10 points, 51% to 41%. In the 68-year history of that poll, the GOP had never led by more than five points. RealClearPolitics has Republicans ahead in 206 races and Democrats ahead in 194, with 35 too close to call. The Cook Political Report puts 68 Democratic House seats “at substantial risk,” while judging less than a dozen GOP seats to be in real trouble. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs made news a few weeks ago by conceding the obvious: that the Republicans could take the House. Top Democrats have told the same to Politico.

The news is so good it’s prompting mutterings on the right: The liberal media are trumpeting the inevitable GOP triumph to make the base complacent and the party peak early. Anything but a Democratic debacle will be spun as proof that Obama’s support, while soft, endures. “The Republicans had a typical off-year chance to win back power and failed. The reason? Voters just don’t trust them.”

The Democrats are not without resources. The first is money, and the second is troops. The Wall Street Journal’s Neil King Jr. notes that in many of the closest races this year the Democrats have more cash on hand, and in 20 of those races “the Democrat has at least a four-to-one cash advantage over the Republican candidate.” The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee says it has nearly $17 million more to spend on key House races than its GOP counterpart. Then there are the unions: “The AFL-CIO says it will spend more than $40 million to back candidates and mobilize residents of union-member households to vote in November, overwhelmingly in support of Democrats.”

What’s going to happen? I put the question to one of the architects of the 1994 Republican win, the conservative activist Grover Norquist, a contributor to the Contract with America, member of the Gingrich kitchen cabinet, and founder, 25 years ago, of Americans for Tax Reform. In conversations over those years, I’ve found him to be among the most insightful political observers in Washington.

So, is this 1994 again?

“It could be, and it looks like it,” he said. He noted that Republicans in 1994 were not polling this well and this strongly this early.

There are parallels, he said, between ’94 and ’10. One is determination. The Republican Party establishment sets its mind specifically to winning back the House in ’94—”before that, it had seemed impossible”—and is doing so again. Both 1994 and 2010 were preceded by striking off-year GOP victories in New Jersey and Virginia, which signaled a coming Republican wave. In 1994 the Republican theme “was not just ‘Vote against Clintonism,’ it was ‘Vote for the Contract with America.'” The Republicans are putting together a 2010 contract and plan to unveil it in late September, as they did in ’94. The first contract, says Mr. Norquist, was “not a campaign tool but a governing tool.” He remembered data that said before the ’94 election, less than 20% of voters had heard of it. But after the election the media made the contract famous. “It was a great gift to the Republicans,” he said, because it forced them into a semblance of unity by making them focus on a specific agenda.

But there are differences between 1994 and 2010. For one, this time around “the Democrats can see what’s coming.” They didn’t see the Republican wave rising in 1994 until it was too late. “When you see something coming a mile away, you can build a ditch to keep it away.” Democrats, he says, have put aside a lot of money for negative ads in the last days of the campaign. “For a year, Democratic strategists said ‘We’ll pass health care, they’ll love us.’ ‘Recovery summer, they’ll love us.’ ‘We’ll run against Wall Street, they’ll love us.'” These “narratives” failed. “The one thing they have left is: ‘We will put together a lot of cash and run a lot of negatives ads showing why it’s not policy that counts, it’s that the Republican candidate had a DUI 10 years ago.'”

Another difference between ’94 and ’10: “There wasn’t a Tea Party movement in ’94.” There was a Perot movement, which was “much less visible and organized.” Ross Perot backed the Republican House effort in 1994. “This time we have a thousand mini-Perots”—Tea Party leaders—”who are against the Democrats and for the Republicans.” Their rallies, Mr. Norquist says, are gaining strength.

Republicans, he argues, must determine to stay focused, and not become distracted by issues that are not central to the campaign. “There’s the danger of getting sidetracked by shiny things,” he says, citing Arizona’s immigration law, or “the mosque in Manhattan.” These issues do not win new votes, “they only please voters you already have.” Mr. Norquist says: “Harry Reid is stapled at the forehead and the hip to Obama, and it’s hurting him. But Gingrich says the most important issue of the day is the mosque, and Reid gets new life out of it: ‘I strongly differ with the president’s statement on the mosque!’ It gives Democrats the chance to say, ‘I’m not like Obama!'”

Another distraction: “All the time and effort turned into rehabilitating George W. Bush. His former aides are out there arguing about who should get credit for the surge. What? . . . For those who believe Bush was doing something useful and central to jam it into the middle of this election—we lost the past two elections because independents didn’t like Bush!” The rehabilitation effort loses potential votes, wins no new ones, and distracts from central themes. Mr. Norquist offers a prediction: “Watch CBS try to get Bush family and friends to do interviews to insert Bush back into the campaign the weekend before the election.”

What should Republicans focus on? “Spending per se is a palpable issue. The central question is not only taxes or the deficit, it’s spending, and you can see this in polls. . . . There is not a Democrat who can say, ‘I was not part of the spending explosion that threatens you and your country.’ It’s the one thing they can’t defend themselves against. They don’t want to stop spending.”

What about high spending by Republicans in the House, in the Senate, and in the White House? That’s true, he says, but big spenders have been getting “pre-purged” in the primaries. Alaska’s Sen. Lisa Murkowski “said she’s bringing home the pork. Well, she lost.”

Mr. Norquist sums the matter up: “The big issue, and people know this, is the explosion of federal spending that is damaging our economy and threatening our future.”

Peggy Noonan, Wall Street Journal


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