If the polls are right, Democrats have a strong chance of winning a majority in the House of Representatives in November. It’s time for them to ponder the experiences of their colleagues across the aisle, when they came into power again in the mid-1990s. Republican congressional history is a handbook for the Democrats. And its title is “Don’t Do This.”
Start with leadership. Republicans took control of the House in 1994 after 40 years in the minority and two years of the Bill Clinton presidency. They picked Newt Gingrich as speaker. During the campaign, his bellicose and bombastic approach had been an asset with party activists and contributors. In office, he became a liability with the public. His approval rating plunged when people heard more of his nasty rhetoric and witnessed his leadership blunders, including government shutdowns. His toxicity hurt GOP candidates up and down the ballot just two years later, when Sen. Bob Dole was the Republican presidential candidate. In 1996, Democratic TV spots focused on the purported horrors of a “Dole-Gingrich” ticket.
If House Democrats get to choose the next speaker, they should ask themselves whether they are writing a script that will help their adversary Donald Trump to a second term in 2020. Is this person going to make statements and take stands that repel that voters that they need to recapture? Specifically, Nancy Pelosi must convince her fellow Democrats that she will not give free ammunition to the Republicans.
If House Democrats get to choose the next speaker, they should ask themselves whether they are writing a script that will help their adversary Donald Trump.
Yes, Pelosi served as speaker before, but she assumed the gavel as George W. Bush was entering his final, painful years as president. In the next two congressional elections, 2008 and 2010, national attention focused on Barack Obama. She did not have to defend her speakership against a Republican president running for reelection and seeking an easy foil. Would another leader fare better in 2020? That’s the question that will face her party.
A Democratic majority must also police its own ethics. The public disliked Gingrich in part because he skirted the rules. After a scathing report from the Select Committee on Ethics, the House hit him with a $300,000 penalty. In the following years, scandal would envelop other Republicans, including a Southern California congressman who literally wrote out a bribe “menu.” Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield), the current majority leader, blamed his party’s 2006 loss on “high-profile ethical lapses” and rank-and-file anger with the way it had “betrayed its principles with earmarks.”
If Democrats take control and then make similar mistakes, their reign will be short.
The Gingrich-era Republicans tried to turn the politics of scandal against the Democrats. Oversight is a legitimate function of Congress, so there is nothing inherently wrong with investigations. But the GOP, puffed up with a supposed mandate, often botched the job. Dan Burton (R-Ind.), chair of the oversight committee, drew ridicule for propounding wild conspiracy theories. Among other things, he tried to raise questions about the suicide of a White House aide by inviting journalists to his home, taking out a pistol, and shooting a cantaloupe.
Republicans reached peak investigatory overreach with the Clinton impeachment. Whatever the legal merits of the perjury and obstruction of justice charges, they should have known that it would be a political fiasco. Americans just did not think that the accusations, related to an affair with a White House intern, merited the president’s removal. And in the 1998 midterms, when Republicans would ordinarily have won seats, they lost ground.
The current administration is a swamp full of scandals awaiting exposure and censure. Congressional investigations need to be smart and substantive, which requires the House to rebuild its capacity for oversight. In recent years, too many staff jobs have gone to 20-something partisan hacks who specialize in snarky tweets. The new majority should instead invest in seasoned professionals who know how to follow the money and get to the bottom of executive misbehavior. And only open a probe if you can get the public behind you.
In 1994, Gingrich’s troops credited their election victories to the “Contract with America,” a list of measures that they promised to advance if they took control. Some progressives are now arguing that the Democrats need something similar. That’s a misreading of history. Most voters in 1994 never even heard of the contract. The party’s success that year stemmed from broader forces, including the political realignment of the South. And some of the contract’s more controversial notions supplied Clinton with handy targets in 1996.
In 2010, when reaction to President Obama’s policies restored the GOP to power in the House, their leader took pains not to claim a 1994-style mandate “No, no, noooooo,” John Boehner (R-Ohio) told journalist Peter Boyer. “I have watched people in the past deal with this issue. … And we made a very conscious decision that we were not going to go down that path.”
Wise words. Democrats should heed them.
John J. Pitney Jr. is a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College. He served as a staffer for the House Republican leadership and the Republican National Committee from 1984 to 1991.
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