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Newt’s lessons for Democrats

Matthew Continetti is a staff writer at the Weekly Standard and the author of "The K Street Gang: The Rise and Fall of the Republican Machine" (Doubleday).

THAT WAS QUICK. Earlier this month, Rep. John P. Murtha, Democrat of Pennsylvania, began circulating a letter to colleagues informing them of his decision to run for majority leader of the House of Representatives.

The Democrats are still in the minority, of course. The election isn’t until November. And even then, Democrats must net 15 seats to gain control of the House.

Whatever. Five months out, it is difficult to locate a single pundit who disagrees with the conventional wisdom that Republicans will lose control of their gerrymandered House, and possibly even the Senate, which they hold by a margin of 10 seats.

Because pundits are never wrong -- right? -- and because politicians have short memories, here are three lessons, culled from a careful study of the Republican experience from the revolutionary year of 1994, when the GOP won a majority of both the House and Senate for the first time in 40 years. As they prepare to take over the 110th Congress in January, Majority Leader Murtha, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid should keep the following in mind:

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Constrain your ambition: The GOP revolutionaries wanted to make the world anew. On Nov. 10, 1994, Newt Gingrich, basking in victory and on his way to becoming speaker of the House, told an audience: “I think Medicaid needs to be looked at. I think the Job Corps needs to be looked at. I think that Head Start needs to be looked at. I think that everything from the ground up has to be looked at.” In similar tones, Rep. Tom DeLay, soon to be the majority whip, told an interviewer, “By the time we finish this poker game, there might not be a federal government left, which would suit me just fine.” More than a decade later, however, it is Gingrich and DeLay who are gone, not the federal government, which continues to grow.

An exhaustive agenda hurts a political movement’s cause in two ways. For one, the public soon tires of it, and of the politicians backing it, as it has tired of President Bush, who you will recall entered his second term prepared not only to “end tyranny in our world” but also transform Social Security and embark on “fundamental” tax reform.

Also, a movement’s core supporters become alienated once they discover that, thanks to the institutions and mechanisms of American politics, it is impossible to achieve all that ideologues desire. And once they discover this, they will despise you. Witness the rash of articles and books -- I’ve written one myself -- devoted to the GOP’s betrayal of conservative ideals.

Limit your investigations: When the Republicans took over, they leapt at the chance to subpoena Clinton administration officials and appoint independent counsels to sniff out wrongdoing.

The scandals that followed were varied, but all shared one thing in common: They had absolutely no political effect. In fact, they might have rallied the public to the commander in chief. In the aftermath of Whitewater, President Clinton was reelected in 1996 with 49% of the vote, and the Democrats gained eight seats in Congress. Two years later, as Congress prepared to impeach Clinton, Democrats gained five seats.

Isn’t it likely that if Democrats used their newfound subpoena power to hound the Bush administration, something similar would happen? Yet, as recently as May, Pelosi told the Washington Post that Democrats would “use the power to investigate” a host of alleged White House improprieties, adding that “you never know where it leads to.” She should recall that voters tire quickly of the criminalization of policy differences. And they dislike attempts to overturn the results of elections through judicial means.

Prepare to be investigated yourself: Republicans in 1994 promised to drain the swamp of public corruption and purge the Congress of disreputable characters. It didn’t happen. Today, scandal plagues the majority, from lawmakers implicated in the “Duke” Cunningham bribery case to those involved in the Jack Abramoff lobbying investigation.

Would scandal disappear with a Democratic majority? Unlikely. The morass of campaign finance regulations, coupled with a Justice Department aggressively pursuing alleged public corruption, suggest that politicians will have to radically shift their fundraising practices before any real change occurs.

In fact, the Democrats are already finding this out. There’s Rep. William J. Jefferson of Louisiana, who is implicated in a bribery scandal. And there’s Rep. Alan B. Mollohan of West Virginia, who gave up his ranking membership of the House Ethics Committee after the Wall Street Journal uncovered $250 million in questionable funds that he had earmarked.

With all this in mind, you’d think Murtha might have hesitated before entering the race for majority leader. As it happens, he did exactly that, telling colleagues last week that he had “suspended” his campaign until after the midterm elections. Maybe he figured out that being in the majority isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be. Just ask the Republicans.


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