As Republicans look to- ward a November election in which the tide is running strongly in their favor, they think of 1994 and see conditions that look similar: Obamacare’s aftermath looks like Hillarycare’s, and the incumbent president’s popularity had slipped then as it has now. But at the time, nobody doubted that the size of the 1994 win was due to a quite different factor: the highly effective leadership of Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and the strategic masterstroke of his Contract with America. How does that comparison of 2010 with 1994 look now? Not good: Confidence in the party leadership is so low that an organized revolt against it has arisen, the Tea Party movement. Republican National Committee Chairman Michael S. Steele’s blunders did not cause this - they are only a small part of a broader problem. If the factor that accounts for the size of the 1994 win has turned from strongly positive to the reverse, that must cast a long shadow over those high hopes for big gains this fall.
A look at how Mr. Gingrich made the difference in 1994 shows how bad things now are. First and foremost, Mr. Gingrich was a highly articulate spokesman for the party on national television, one who focused issues quickly and clearly in crisp and forceful language. That did many things at once: It got the party’s message disseminated widely, projected energy and confidence, signaled a firm grasp of basic principles and brought those principles to the center of the national debate. But it also showed that this was a bold and decisive leader, not a timid and unreliable politician. Underlying all of it was shrewd strategic thought.
Mr. Gingrich had a conception of the leader’s role unlike that of those who preceded or followed him. Most leaders of party congressional caucuses have seen themselves primarily as the manager of a small club, but Mr. Gingrich understood that he was above all the public voice of that club. In 1994, he was everywhere on television, making the case for his party and motivating voters to turn out and support it. Dennis Hastert, who followed Mr. Gingrich as speaker, was the opposite: invisible, timid, inarticulate and with a charisma score of zero. The party gained seats during Mr. Gingrich’s leadership and lost them during Mr. Hastert’s.
This kind of leadership goes together with a positive agenda. However unpopular the Clintons’ agenda was, Mr. Gingrich saw that he could not inspire and motivate voters by harping on that alone. By itself, disillusion with the Democrats could only go so far - it had to be converted into enthusiasm for Republicans. Hence the Contract with America.
Nobody can doubt that House Minority Leader John A. Boehner and Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell are good and loyal Republicans, but they lack everything that made Mr. Gingrich the author of success in 1994. Both are passive and timid and lack the drive and energy a real leader needs. Both are primarily managers rather than public voices of their caucuses. Neither can dominate a TV screen as Mr. Gingrich could, and neither is able to capture the public’s attention by focusing issues sharply and succinctly. Mr. Boehner is a wooden personality devoid of Mr. Gingrich’s charisma, and the slogan: “Boehner for Speaker,” which is beginning to appear, is hardly inspiring. Mr. McConnell is amiable but retiring, never arresting or incisive.
To reach the wider public, Mr. Gingrich needed to keep his finger on its pulse, but Mr. Boehner and Mr. McConnell are often out of touch with its mood. When Mr. McConnell was busy rounding up votes for the George W. Bush administration’s amnesty-for-illegals bill, the public firestorm that erupted caught him completely by surprise. His response was simply, “I hear you,” and he meekly did what the public was telling him to do. That is a follower, not a leader.
Similarly, Mr. Boehner was caught flat-footed by the furor that greeted Dede Scozzafava’s nomination for the Republican nomination in the 23rd Congressional District of New York. Most people quickly saw that she was to the left even of moderate Republicans, but not Mr. Boehner. The House Republican leader should have been the first to know that the local nomination process had been rigged, but Mr. Boehner damaged both himself and the party by continuing to support Ms. Scozzafava as the authentic local candidate long after other senior party figures had abandoned her.
The mainstream media give the case for liberalism plenty of airtime, and so Republicans need to take every chance they can get to air their case. But when President Obama met with House Republican leaders earlier this year, Mr. Boehner waved off a chance to do so in the press conference that followed, weakly claiming he did not want to exacerbate the situation. Mr. Gingrich would have seized the chance to sum up the crucial differences between the two sides in a few ringing phrases. But perhaps it was just as well that Mr. Boehner didn’t try to emulate Mr. Gingrich on this occasion: When more recently he tried to sum up what was wrong with Mr. Obama’s stimulus, his expression (using a nuclear weapon to kill an ant) missed the point so disastrously that he only handed Mr. Obama a chance to ridicule him.
Through incidents like these and countless others like them, the party leadership has come to be seen as ineffective and unreliable and has generated a mistrust bordering on contempt. A leadership vacuum is being filled by the Tea Party movement, which even has produced a Contract From America, a sure sign that nobody expects Mr. Boehner or Mr. McConnell to produce strategic thought in Mr. Gingrich’s manner.
Unfortunately, the leadership’s reputation rubs off on the party as a whole, which is perhaps unfair: The GOP has plenty of talent, energy and ideas (notably Rep. Paul D. Ryan’s Roadmap for America’s Future) and the Tea Party movement itself is largely driven by Republican ideas. But one stubborn fact remains. The Republican Party allows itself to be led in this way: It can’t even bring itself to replace a national chairman who has become something of a joke.
Gambling on a course that relies on the negatives of the other side rather than a clear direction of one’s own is a huge risk. As long as there is no positive alternative, Democratic negatives will fluctuate, and the party in power can always influence that fluctuation in the short term. On June 18, Rasmussen reported that those disapproving of Mr. Obama outnumbered those approving by 17 percent, a new high. Within five days, however, that figure had shrunk to 5 percent, and a further five days later, it had shrunk to 1 percent. These numbers will continue to fluctuate while there is nothing positive to capture and stabilize the potential defectors from the Obama camp.
And so, faced with an urgent need to rescue the country from a destructive presidency, the GOP slouches toward November with inarticulate, uninspiring, aimless leadership. Can the party grasp the nettle and overcome inertia and embarrassment so as to install at least one effective leader, and thus get its act together? That would take courage and determination - but if the party can’t show those qualities here, how can the country trust it to deal with far more difficult national problems? By acting decisively, the party could quickly regain the confidence of its disaffected clientele. If not, it will deserve to lose in the fall. And in this context, anything short of the large and decisive win needed to protect the country from further damage is a loss.
John M. Ellis is professor emeritus at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and president of the California Association of Scholars.