This piece is part of our Jan. 7, 2018, Reflection Issue, in which we take a step back from the daily onslaught of news and controversy and try to get some perspective by reexamining the past. We gathered newsmakers who took part in pivotal Washington events over the past 30 years and asked them to talk about those experiences and possibly unearth new lessons and new ways of looking at the present. One of the periods we chose to revisit was the so-called Republican Revolution. On Nov. 8, 1994, Republicans won control of the House of Representatives for the first time in 40 years by pledging to enact a 10-point plan called the “Contract With America.” It was co-authored by Rep. Newt Gingrich of Georgia and Rep. Richard K. Armey of Texas, with help from former congressman Vin Weber of Minnesota. Gingrich became speaker of the House, and Armey became House majority leader. It was the first midterm election of the Clinton administration. Some of the proposals from the Contract became law, including welfare reform and a balanced budget act.
Most of the Republicans elected in 1994 have since left Congress. On Oct. 23, 2017, Washington Post political reporter David Weigel sat down with four former GOP congressmen: Weber, now a lobbyist in Washington; George R. Nethercutt Jr. (Wash.), who has his own consulting firm; Zachary Wamp (Tenn.), now part of the ReFormers Caucus, a bipartisan advocacy group of former lawmakers and Cabinet officials; and Thomas Davis (Va.), director of federal government affairs at consulting giant Deloitte. They talked about the Republican Revolution and how politics has changed since then. The transcript has been condensed, edited, annotated and reordered for clarity.
Weigel: What was behind the impulse of the voter who votes for Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush and then keeps voting Democratic for Congress?
Weber: Well, a lot of it was in the South. We’d go in cycle after cycle after cycle against these guys in Alabama and Texas and Oklahoma. And we just could not dislodge them even though Reagan was getting 60-plus percent in their districts. But it all did flip at some point. Members of Congress would identify with local issues as opposed to national issues. One of the things throughout the ’80s and the ’90s that we tried to do was to nationalize the elections because we were winning nationally. There was this deep sense that it didn’t matter if you voted for a different member of Congress because they weren’t going to be able to change anything anyway. And the “Contract With America” was a visible way of saying we really will do things differently. Your vote really does matter.
Weigel: When was it clear in that cycle that the House was gettable at all?
Weber: I’ve always said the only one that really was confident we were going to win the majority was Newt. And [political consultant] Joe Gaylord. Several weeks before the election, Newt said, “Joe says it’s absolutely sure I’m going to be speaker.” I wasn’t buying it.
Weigel: What changed in 1994?
Nethercutt: I ran against [Democratic House Speaker Thomas] Foley. He had been in for 30 years, and I think there was just a fatigue. My predecessor candidates had said, “He’s a crook,” “He’s a bum.” And I said: “No, he’s a nice man. He’s just leading the country the wrong way.” And that seemed to be okay. I had a slogan: “We don’t need a speaker, we need a listener.” [Everyone laughs.] And it seemed to resonate with people.
Wamp: Something was brewing for 10 years, and [Newt and his group] organized it into a document. Pieces of it tapped into the angst of middle America. “We’ve been left, nobody’s listening to us. Everybody is politically correct. We just work hard out here. And we’re not getting any results.” People were saying, why do people get paid for having extra children but are not working? And we needed to tie some accountability into this. And welfare reform resonated as part of the “Contract With America,” so much that Bill Clinton knew he better sign it.
Since 1994, Republicans have won control of the House in every election except for two. But in 1996, it was not clear they would keep their majority. Disputes with Clinton over the budget had led to two government shutdowns during the previous fall and winter. In 1996, Clinton also defeated Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.) with 49 percent of the vote.
Weigel: How certain was it in ’96 that you could hold on?
Wamp: It’s like a wave coming in. Then two years later, some of them just went back out to sea in the next cycle. I’ll never forget Michael Patrick Flanagan.
Weigel: Beat Dan Rostenkowski [an 18-term incumbent from Chicago and chair of the House Ways and Means Committee].
Wamp: Then two years later, in this twist of fate, Rod Blagojevich beat Michael Patrick Flanagan. Little did we know what Rod Blagojevich was going to become. [Blagojevich went on to become governor of Illinois and went to prison for trying to sell the U.S. Senate seat vacated by Barack Obama.]
Nethercutt: I used to hear him say, “The guy I beat went to jail, and the guy who beat me went to jail, but I never went to jail.” [Laughter.]
Davis: What saved us in ’96 were Democratic open seats. We picked up enough of those. A couple of things we did right: We were able to get welfare reform through, and we cleaned up our act after shutting down the government twice. We also had earmarks in those days. [Congress froze earmarks in 2011.] It’s the grease that holds things together. If I had a bridge in there or an interchange, it’s a reason to vote yes. Now, the default vote is voting no.
In August 1997, Clinton signed a balanced-budget agreement reached with congressional Republicans. In January 1998, Drudge Report, The Post and other news outlets broke the story of Clinton’s relationship with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky. In September, Congress released Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr’s report, which contained 11 possible grounds for impeachment of Clinton, including lying under oath about his relationship with Lewinsky. In October, a little less than a month before the midterm elections, the House voted to initiate impeachment proceedings, which later ended in acquittal by the Senate.
Wamp: Impeachment was miscalculated and put us at risk, don’t you think?
Davis: It’s what almost cost us the House in ’98.
Weigel: How should have that been played out instead? Should there have been a censure and move on, end of story?
Davis: I would not have started impeachment talk that soon. In my opinion, it was a tough move. But for me, if you lie under oath, whether you’re a janitor, whether you’re a baseball player, whether you’re a millionaire or president, there’s got to be some ramifications for that.
Wamp: I’ve said publicly — with a lot of the Democrat talk of “if we win the majority in 2018, we will impeach Trump” — be careful. Because you never know where the public will end up. Even if you have your ducks in a row, they can side with him and throw you out.
Davis: When we start talking about throwing their guy out, it got their base aroused and their base came out. So, going after impeachment is a two-edged sword.
Weigel: How much more cynical do you think the electorate is now? And why?
Nethercutt: I think President Trump brings out cynicism in people. I go home a lot to Washington state. And basically, people come to me and say, “George, what’s going on back there? What a mess.” And they’re frustrated.
Wamp: There was an era — and we were probably at the very end of it — where public service was a noble calling. And you could trust people in public office. They don’t know who to trust anymore. I’ll never forget [after the 1996 election], Newt came to us and said this president got reelected, we now have the obligation to govern, to reach this historic balanced budget act in 1997. It led to the glory years. I give speeches now and I say, “Who would have ever thought that the Clinton–Gingrich years would become the good old days?” [Everybody laughs.]
Davis: This all started in 1987 when they did away with the Fairness Doctrine. [It was a requirement by the Federal Communications Commission that broadcast license holders present multiple viewpoints on controversial issues.] And so, some radio station mogul said we don’t have to show both sides anymore. Talk radio sprang up, and they got a dedicated cadre of listeners hearing what they wanted to hear. This got replicated with Fox News and then MSNBC. People have their own reality, their own bubbles.
Weigel: Do you remember any example where you’d go back home and constituents are asking you something that you knew was not true because they were misinformed in the media?
Wamp: You wouldn’t believe how many people in my district thought that members of Congress were exempt from [paying into] Social Security.
Davis: Full salary for life.
Nethercutt: You serve one term, you get all your money.
Wamp: I told you the real corrupt way they defeated my son [in a Republican primary] for Congress with a Photoshopped picture of him burning the U.S. passport because he said in the debate we should not deport 11 million people. [The incumbent] sent it to every Republican voter in the district. This is Weston Wamp’s position on immigration. He barely lost. But that’s the kind of rancid politics that we see today in America.
The former lawmakers also singled out changes in campaign finance rules, especially the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court decision, for causing some of the negative developments in politics since 1994.
Wamp: Steve Israel, the former Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chairman, says that when he began as DCCC chairman [in 2010] he told members they need to spend 10 hours on the phone each week raising money, if they want to stay in office. When he left his chair [in 2014], he told them you need to spend something like 30 hours a week in order to stay in office. The average member of Congress is distracted, and the focus is more on campaigns and elections than it is on solving the country’s problems. And since Citizens United, unregulated money takes over the campaigns.
Weber: There’s another aspect to this, though. I agree with what Zach just said, but it’s perversely made worse by the regulations the campaign reformers have put on campaigns. If you were to lift contribution limits to members’ campaigns, you would solve some of this problem. Anybody running for office would rather have a dollar that he controls than a dollar that somebody else is going to control, even if it’s being spent on his behalf. So we got the worst of both worlds with this, between that and Citizens United.
Wamp: The parties are now suffering because of it.
Davis: Parties are weakened, and you get Steve Bannon going out and starting a super PAC and he’s empowered. I call it the law of unintended consequences. But when you take the fact that the money’s moved from the parties, which were a centering force, and the media has moved from vetted factual news out to everybody’s own reality, and the districts have moved from competitive districts to single party, the middle is gone. What do you expect?
Wamp: The parties are more and more powerless. The outside groups are more and more powerful. If these two parties don’t get their act together, the next generation may be elected outside of this two-party apparatus.
The conversation eventually turned to health-care reform and the failure of Republicans in Congress to completely repeal and replace Obamacare.
Wamp: [Former House speaker] John Boehner spoke the truth when he said that Republicans haven’t agreed on health-care solutions in whatever — 25, 30 years. And he didn’t think they would this time around. And there was a miscalculation by the executive branch as to what they could accomplish.
Weber: Yeah, but I don’t think there’s a way to win on health care. In the 1980s, pollster Bob Teeter always told us the issues of the future are health care and education. In ’88 when he’s polling for Vice President Bush — Bush said he wanted to be the education president. I saw Teeter and I said, “I see our candidate talking about education, what about health care?” He said, “Well, I adjusted my thinking just a little bit, Vin. Education is the winning issue of the future; health care is the losing issue of the future.” And I think there’s a lot of truth to that.
Weigel: There is a sense that the Republicans might have figured [health-care reform] out more than they had. President Trump said that he thought there’d be a bill ready for him to sign.
Weber: Not to be too critical of our party, but I think that we’re paying a price for having been able to succeed simply by being against Obama for so long. Now we’re in charge. We’re trying to get something done. And it’s a psychological shift that the party is having a hard time making.
We ended our discussion with the economy and tax reform. At the time of this conversation, the Senate had just passed a budget bill that paved the way for tax cuts that Republicans said would grow the economy and that analysts said could add up to $1.5 trillion to the federal budget deficit over a decade.
Weigel: If you look at things at a macro level, you’d say unemployment rates are pretty low, interest rates are pretty low. It’s time to do something with that opportunity like we did in the ’90s. What opportunities are we missing right now because politics has degraded to just cynicism and not trusting Washington?
Weber: This is what’s so strange about this period. It ought to be a time of real optimism about the future. In the private sector, we’re dominant in technology. We’re dominant in life sciences. We’re even dominant in the new manufacturing technologies that are coming back. So, there ought to be some opportunities for the country to really move ahead. But we’re not doing that.
Weigel: Do you see the issue of debt and deficits returning at all? You were there when cutting the deficit worked.
Weber: I’m going to say two contradictory things. First, I’m a pessimist about dealing with the problem partially because if we can’t deal with entitlements with Republicans in charge of all three centers of power, I just don’t think we’re going to. When we’re going to deal with this problem is when a debt crisis hits America, I’m sorry to say. Now having said that, there is an argument that says if you have a large and growing debt, the worst thing in the world will be a shrinking economy underneath it. So, to the extent that we have policies that expand the economy, it makes it at least somewhat more possible for us to cope with that.
Wamp: Well, I also think that this leads to the decline of the Republican Party because the tea party responded on these economic issues. But the tea party was not organized and sort of rolled into the Republican Party as being the most conservative people. It led to the Freedom Caucus. I think in the next gyration of this, the hardcore conservatives will give up on the Republican Party if we give up on the debt and the deficit. If spending goes up and we have an economic crisis and we’re in power, we can’t really blame anybody but ourselves.
David Weigel is a Washington Post staff writer.