An ingenious political party, modern-day Republicans. No matter how favored by the odds, the political circumstances, the shape of congressional districts, how many seats may be up for grabs in the Senate, the glaring failures of the opposition, or just the times and tides, the Grand Old Party has a long record of contriving less than grand ways to shoot itself in the foot -- and snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. It's almost a tradition by now.Yes, but the GOP's prospects look so good this year, or at least they looked good at the start of this year's midterm elections. Only two years ago, all signs pointed to dramatic Republican gains in the next Congress, too. But that was before the campaign began in earnest, and it turned out the GOP had somehow managed to come up with an assortment of leading candidates who proved a prize collection of eccentrics and egocentrics with the strangest ideas -- like there being a distinction between rape and "legitimate rape" that would prevent a woman from conceiving a child. Remember a candidate named Todd Akin from Missouri (or maybe outer space)?
That was his brilliant theory, and after he propounded it, he didn't stand a chance of winning the Senate seat he was once favored to. There was just too powerful a bloc of voters standing in his way: the sane.
Somehow the Republican Party managed to come up with just enough extremists and eccentrics in 2012, or just simple political incompetents, to more than balance the appeal of a level-headed presidential candidate like Mitt Romney, whom the radicals in the party always despised anyway. He had too much common, businesslike sense. And once again the chances of a Republican-led Senate slipped through the party's fingers.
The best thing that can ever happen to the Democratic Party, which has its own share of ideologues impervious to good sense, is a bumper crop of nutcases running on the Republican ticket. And they show up with the regularity of a full moon.
Yes, there have been exceptions to that dismal rule. Think of the historic congressional elections of 1994, which changed everything in Congress and a lot with the country -- for much the better. Those election returns were stunning. For once the Republicans had waged a thoughtful, well-coordinated and highly effective campaign, and a national one with national themes of renewal and rejuvenation, which is just what the country needs today -- and what so many Americans of both parties would welcome.
Because once again a lot of Americans understand that the country is heading in the wrong direction, both at home and abroad, and they're looking for leaders who can do something to turn things around, not just grouse about how hopeless things are.
But are there any leaders like that in sight? At times like these, the landmark election of 1994 stands out like a beacon of light, and an example for Republicans to follow if only they would. That was the election in which the GOP picked up 54 seats in the House, nine in the Senate, and changed the character of Congress for generations, ending 40 years of Democratic dominance and entropy.
How did they do it? One big reason was something called the Contract with America, which sophisticates dismissed at the time as just pie-in-the-sky or worse. The sitting Democratic president at the time, a slick fellow from Arkansas who was just about the best salesman ever to occupy the White House -- his name was William Jefferson Clinton -- called it the Contract on America, and why not? It defied all the conventions of what supposedly works in American politics. In place of glittering generalities and the usual class-bound appeals, the Contract with America was direct and detailed (right down to the text of bills it proposed to introduce and pass from the first day of the next Congress), and it was full of overdue reforms to be enacted without further ado.
Like what? Like the idea of balancing the federal budget, encouraging American business to be the great job-producing engine it once was, beefing up the American military at last, and reforming the welfare system so it helped people get on their feet rather than become part of a fast-forming, permanent, government-subsidized underclass. Ideas that don't sound bad today.
Where did the Contract with America come from? It was largely the product of a dynamic Newt Gingrich (yes, there was a time when he was a dynamic figure) and the thinkers at the Heritage Foundation, which is called a think tank for good reason.
So it figures that today, when Democratic spokesmen are pressed to say what was so good about the Clinton administration, the first thing they do is mention balanced budgets and welfare reform, both of which Bill Clinton had to be sore-pressed to adopt.
While giving that president more than full credit for such reforms, the Democrats' house historians may see no need to go into detail, and mention that both those Signature Accomplishments of Bill Clinton's might have been impossible -- indeed, just about inconceivable -- without the GOP's historic sweep of the 1994 congressional elections and the Republican-dominated Congress it produced.
Thank you, Newt Gingrich and constructive company. But what has the GOP done for us lately? You have to think long and hard to come up with anything like the Contract with America, and then you might come up empty.
Time is running out for the Republicans to repeat anything like their triumph in 1994. Instead, the utterly, sincerely drab GOP leader in the Senate, Mitch McConnell, said the other day that coming up with something like the old Contract with America was a bad idea. Because it would just give the Democrats a target to pick apart. Well, let 'em. That's what they tried to do with the original Contract with America, and you can see how well that turned out. The result of all their nitpicking was the greatest Republican triumph in decades.
But this generation's GOP seems to learn from history only how to ignore it. Or it wouldn't be just sitting around waiting for Godot or another Gingrich; it would be fashioning a new contract with America -- because it's clear that not just the party but the country needs one. And time's a-wastin', and indeed may already have been wasted.