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Republicans of '94 Revolution Reflect on '06


By Richard Wolf, USA TODAY

(Dec. 8) -- Republicans who helped capture control of Congress 12 years ago blame the party's leaders for this year's debacle at the polls.

Architects of the 1994 "Republican revolution," as well as current and former lawmakers elected that year, say the GOP repelled voters by putting self-preservation before the nation's agenda. "For the first six years of the 12 years, we were focused on policy and principles, and politics was secondary," says Rep. Zach Wamp of Tennessee, a member of the 1994 class who won his seventh term this month. "The second six years, politics became primary: raising money, going negative, consolidating power."

"We did more good work the first 12 hours we were in Congress than the Republicans have done in the past five years," says Joe Scarborough, a class of '94 member who resigned in 2001 and is a talk-show host. "Republican leaders who took us to the point we are right now should be ashamed."

Two-thirds of the 73-member Republican class of 1994 are gone from the House of Representatives. Twenty-four kept their House seats despite this year's rout, in which Democrats gained simultaneous House and Senate majorities for the first time since 1994. Five lost their bids for a seventh term. Two others resigned in disgrace.

Most members interviewed from the class of 1994, as well as former House GOP leaders, cite three reasons beyond their leaders' control: the war in Iraq, corruption scandals and President Bush's low popularity. Beyond that, they say leaders such as House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois and former House majority leader Tom DeLay of Texas put staying in power above principles such as limited government and low spending.

"The Republicans have stopped being reformers," says former congressman John Kasich of Ohio, a close ally of former speaker Newt Gingrich. "They're tired, they're worn out, and they're practicing politics as usual."

Rep. Dan Lungren of California, who returned to Congress last year after a 16-year absence, warned of the demise in a closed meeting of House Republicans last year. He noted the Capitol halls were lined with lobbyists who expected to get what they asked for. "We had succumbed to the temptation of things that we had criticized the Democrats for," he says.

Former House majority leader Dick Armey of Texas says regaining a majority won't be easy. "The job of the Republicans after this election is going to be once again to convince the American people that we are the conservative party that the Democrats pretended to be," he says.

Needs of Urban Areas Weren't Being Met

J .C. Watts imagines average workers at a water cooler, average families at a kitchen table. Republicans, he says, have stopped addressing their needs.

The former four-term Oklahoma congressman says he saw it coming before he walked away from his political career in 2003 to launch J.C. Watts Companies, a consulting firm.

The party wasn't meeting the needs of the poor and urban areas, he says. Instead, it was fixated on "push-button issues," such as abortion and flag burning.

In 1994, when he was elected, the Contract with America offered "something tangible," Watts says. In 2006, the message had become: "The Democrats will be worse."

"Being against (incoming House Speaker) Nancy Pelosi's plan is not a plan," he says.

"We lost our way, pure and simple," says Watts, 49. "When ego and power mesh, it's a very dangerous thing." His solution is simple: Address issues that matter to people

Comeback Will Take a Bit of Relating Like Reagan

A national wave swept Rep. Gil Gutknecht into Congress in 1994. Another swept him out this year.

Gutknecht, 55, a student of history, says part of it was just zeitgeist - the spirit of the times. "People had just worn a little bit weary of Republican rule," he says.

The six-term Minnesota congressman, one of five members of his class to lose this year, also is a salesman. In recent years, he says, the GOP "began to sort of ignore the customers" on issues ranging from Medicare prescription drug coverage to pork-barrel spending.

Former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher "said many years ago, 'First you win the debate, then you win the vote,' " he says. "The leadership decided a long time ago they weren't going to win the debate. They were just going to break knuckles to win the vote."

To come back, he says, Republicans must frame issues "the way Ronald Reagan did - you take conservative principles and wrap them in an optimistic, friendly language

Limited government? To some it seemed like no government

Zach Wamp's Republican Party believes in limited government. Recently, however, it gave people something closer to no government, he says.

Republicans' response to Hurricane Katrina hurt, Wamp says.

So, too, did his party's reluctance to exercise oversight on issues such as the war in Iraq.

"We began to be focused much more on money and the consolidation of power than we were the policy and the principle that brought us into the majority," says Wamp, 49, who won a seventh term from Tennessee this month. "We had become more interested in winning politically than doing the right thing."

To win back the majority, Wamp says, the party needs to focus on issues and principles, not politics. That could mean fighting with their own president.

"You can't just go along with the executive branch," he says, "even if they're from your party."

Values preached weren't practiced; public not offered clear message

One thing about Bob Barr: You always knew where he stood.

Not so today's Republican Party, says the former four-term Georgia congressman, perhaps Congress' biggest defender of personal liberty during his tenure. After leaving in 2003, he became president and CEO of Liberty Strategies, a public policy consulting firm.

Barr says Republicans lost because they had no clear message: They preached fiscal austerity but practiced pork-barrel spending. They preached privacy rights but tried, against her husband's wishes, to keep alive a Florida woman (Terri Schiavo) in a persistent vegetative state.

"They articulated no vision or agenda," Barr says. "The public was receiving mixed signals: talk of conservative government, and action that was big government by any measure."

To turn things around, Barr, 58, says the GOP should develop creative solutions to problems such as health care and immigration - and "get some real leaders."

A Fatal Flaw: Not Dealing With Pocketbook Issues

Rep. Mark Souder proudly calls himself a "hard-core" conservative. He doesn't think Republicans lost the House majority they won in 1994 by forgetting their roots.

Rather, Souder says, the party got swept out of the Northeast and other regions by not addressing pocketbook concerns: health care, energy, college tuition, pensions.

It's fine to cut budgets, Souder says, but "the way we held power was also being sensitive to our districts." The Republican class of '94, for which he served as vice president, carefully placed its members on key panels that would help them win federal aid. Seven remain on the Appropriations Committee.

"To survive through 12 years and then a tsunami, most of those members have made some adaptations," he says. His prescription for the future: update conservatism.

"How would Ronald Reagan behave in this environment?" says Souder, 56, who won a seventh term from Indiana. The party, he says, needs "a different appeal."

Entry #794


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