Signs of Republican revival in Tuesday’s election will leave some conservatives cheering, and others sneering; cynics insist that it doesn’t matter which half of the two-party power structure controls the levers of power. This world-weary lament has become familiar to anyone who listens to the angry callers who often jam the lines on talk radio. The conventional complaint suggests that Republicans came to power in 1994 with grand promises and great hopes, but proceeded to abandon their principles and to betray their base. Even after the Bush election in 2000, with complete control of all branches of government, they achieved nothing – displaying the same corrupt, free-spending, budget-busting tendencies that they decry in the Democrats now. According to the arguments of disillusioned defeatists, a GOP takeover of Congress in 2010 (or even of the presidency in 2012) will do nothing to stop the march toward socialism, globalism and apocalypse.
This smug summary of past, present and future sounds informed and sophisticated but it actually distorts and ignores several aspects of recent history. Obviously, Republican leadership fell short in many ways (enabling the Dems to score big wins in 2006 and 2008) but on balance the real record gives more reason for pride and hope than for regret and despair.
* The Gingrich Revolution of 1994 failed to realize all its goals (like every other political movement) but still managed to achieve its most important priority: cutting the deficit and bringing the budget into balance. When Newt and his conservative cadres took control of both Houses of Congress, the federal deficit stood at 2.87% of the Gross Domestic Product. (It had reached all the way to 4.58% in the worst year for the first President Bush –1992). The deficit fell steadily for the next six years, culminating in a federal surplus of 2.41% in 2000. Bill Clinton claims credit for this achievement, of course, but it was actually the Republicans who fought ferociously to bring new restraints to wasteful federal spending: Gingrich and company even defied polls and precedent to bring about a partial government shutdown in 1995. They eventually compromised with Clinton, but their focus and pressure on the Democratic president brought historic progress in reducing federal red ink.