The 1994 elections marked the biggest Republican victory in a generation. Led by right-wing ideologue Newt Gingrich, the GOP took control of both houses of Congress for the first time in 40 years–in what was known as the “Republican Revolution.”
In the House, Republicans made a net gain of 52 seats for a comfortable majority. In the Senate, nine seats swung to the Republicans. Well-known Democratic power brokers like House Speaker Tom Foley (D-Wash.) and New York Gov. Mario Cuomo were beaten by relative unknowns. Plus, reactionary ballot measures like California’s anti-immigrant Proposition 187 and a Georgia “two-strikes-and-you’re-out” sentencing referendum won by overwhelming margins.
Gingrich claimed that the election results represented a “political sea change”–and a mandate for the Republican right. He vowed to pass the Contract with America–a 10-point program of right-wing proposals that included tax cuts for the rich, welfare “reform,” harsh restrictions on government spending and various other items that had been on the Republican wish list for years–within the first 100 days of their reign.
The mainstream media hung on every word from the Gingrichites and produced countless stories familiar to us today–about how the Republicans would be free to do whatever they wanted in Washington for years to come.
It didn’t turn out that way. Not a single bill from the Contract with America became law. The popularity of the Republicans steadily faded. And Newt Gingich, the leader of the “revolution,” became the most hated man in American politics.
In reality, the Republican victories in the 1994 elections didn’t represent a “political sea change.” They were a protest vote against the Clinton administration that had taken over the White House two years before.
Clinton won the presidency by capitalizing on widespread hope for “change” after 12 years of Republican rule. But he didn’t deliver on anything he promised. Two years into the Clinton presidency, most people didn’t feel that their lives had improved. Shortly before the 1994 election, the centerpiece of Clinton’s campaign–the promise to enact health care reform–collapsed in the face of Republican opposition and Clinton’s own willingness to bargain away his proposals.
The disillusionment with Clinton provided openings for Republicans to exploit voters’ angers and fears. On Election Day, the demoralized Democratic base stayed home–while Republicans turned out their supporters in large numbers.
But the Gingrichites confused this anti-Clinton vote with a “mandate” from voters to impose right-wing policies. Once the Republicans’ hit list of attacks on workers and the poor was unmasked, it sparked a backlash.
The opposition didn’t come from Democrats. Rather than mount a real fight, the Democrats–led by Bill Clinton himself–adopted the right-wing agenda of the Gingrichites, only with more moderate language.
Instead, the challenge to the “Republican Revolution” came from below. Wherever the arrogant Republicans tried to impose their will, they were met by people–in the dozens and hundreds and thousands–who wanted to stand up and say “no.”
A few weeks after the new Congress was sworn in, more than 100 jobless welfare recipients crashed a House Ways and Means Committee hearing on welfare “reform.” Carrying signs reading “Put Newt in an Orphanage,” the protesters drove the Republican members of the committee from the room.
In March, Gingrich’s office in Marietta, Ga., was taken over in a protest by 400 members of more than a dozen unions–including nurses, electricians, communications workers, truckers and government employees. “We ain’t waiting two years for another election,” Stewart Acuff, president of the Atlanta Labor Council, told reporters. “If you’re determined to rip our guts out, you’re going to have a fight on your hands.”
These protests that grabbed national attention were matched by activism at the state and local level. In Indianapolis, some 25,000 unionists demonstrated against the state legislature’s plan to repeal the state’s “prevailing wage” law. More than 10,000 students marched against planned cuts to education in New York. In Virginia, when Republican Gov. George Allen tried to pass a budget that gave away $2.1 billion in tax cuts while slashing aid to education and the poor, an outpouring of protest at public hearings–and a demonstration of thousands in the state capital–forced the legislature to reject Allen’s budget.
Together, these mobilizations set a different political tone to the meek, me-too rhetoric of the Democrats. By the time the Gingrichites unsuccessfully tried to impose their will by shutting down the government at the end of 1995–in a dispute with the Clinton White House over the scale of cutbacks in spending–the Republicans’ bubble had burst.
Unfortunately, the protest movement against the “Republican Revolution” didn’t sustain and link together. As a result, Bill Clinton–his presidency revitalized thanks to the self-destruction of the Republicans–was able to regain the initiative and adopt many of Gingrich’s policies for his own agenda, but with more humane rhetoric. So when Clinton signed a welfare “reform” law in July 1996, the liberal organizations that had organized protests against the Gingrichites were silent, for fear of hurting their “allies” in the White House.
Nevertheless, the rise and fall of the Republican Revolution shows that if the smug right wingers of the Bush administration think they have a mandate to do whatever they want, they have another think coming.