IN DEMOCRATIC CIRCLES these days, there is much talk of 1994—with good reason. The president’s approval ratings are bad, Congress’s are even worse, and, most importantly, scandal is sweeping the nation’s capital. The atmosphere is poisonous enough that some Democrats believe it could produce the kind of electoral storm last seen twelve years ago, when Republicans retook Congress by railing against corruption in Washington. Of course, the 2006 Democrats differ in many ways from the 1994 Republicans. One key difference may well be the lack of Newt Gingrich—or, rather, a liberal version of him.
Gingrich’s role in that election has been debated and, some would say, overstated. But, as a big-thinking, bomb-throwing type, he did something that many say Democrats sorely need at the moment: “He got Republicans excited and enthusiastic,” says Philip Klinkner, a professor at Hamilton College who edited a book on the 1994 elections. “He unified and gave some direction to the party.” He was also relentless in attacking the other side. “The biggest problem Democrats have is that people think everyone [is corrupt],” says one party strategist. “There has to be a constant effort to identify this as a Republican scandal.” And, while the public may eventually determine that on its own—if, say, a wave of indictments emerges from the Abramoff case—Democrats could use a Gingrich-like leader to press their case.
THE NEWT ROLE is not an easy one for Democrats to cast, requiring, as it does, both ruthless political aggression and credibility in attacking Washington. Those criteria eliminate many prominent Democrats, particularly presidential hopefuls who don’t want to risk showing such sharp elbows—not to mention taking responsibility for an effort that might not succeed. Current Democratic golden boy Barack Obama, for example, has opted to be the face of his party’s reform efforts rather than its attack dog. Instead of vicious excoriations of Republicans, he has offered mostly nonpartisan platitudes, telling “Good Morning America” that “neither party has a monopoly on virtue.”
The party does have a roster of sharpshooters, among them the campaign committee chairs, Representative Rahm Emanuel and Senator Chuck Schumer. But their ability to lead an ethical assault is limited by their responsibility to vulnerable Democratic incumbents. Gingrich was famously willing to sacrifice members of his own party for the greater cause of GOP victory, but, if Democratic members come under fire for connections to Jack Abramoff, it will be the responsibility of Emanuel and Schumer to protect them.
Another possibility would be Party Chairman Howard Dean—still a hero to many in the base and the blogosphere, and certainly not afraid to speak his mind. But, once he became a late-night punch line for his scream the night of the Iowa caucuses, his effectiveness as a messenger, even to moderate Democrats, became pretty limited. ‘He’s been so thoroughly demonized, it’s impossible for him to deliver a message beyond the base,” says one consultant.
In the eyes of many on and off the Hill, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has a similar problem. She’s certainly not afraid to be partisan or employ tough tactics—“She is very aggressive,” says one Pelosi ally. She has also been strikingly successful in enforcing party discipline in the House. But she hails from one of the most famously liberal districts in the nation. And many Democrats say she damaged herself within the party when she backed Representative Jack Murtha’s call for troop withdrawal in Iraq—reinforcing the image that Democrats are weak on defense. “The timing wasn’t good—it made things a lot more complicated,” says a Democratic aide. Others suggest the real hindrance for Pelosi, like Dean, is less her ideology than her leadership style. “She needs to reassert that she’s in control a lot,” says one strategist with Hill ties.
That leaves Harry Reid. In some ways, the Nevada senator seems right for the part. He is a former boxer from a red state, with a blunt, Middle American manner—and an anti-abortion Mormon to boot. He also has a reputation for bare-knuckled politics. He has called President Bush a liar and a loser (he apologized for the latter), and, last fall, he scored a political coup when he forced a surprise closed session to highlight Republican foot-dragging in the investigation of the White House’s use of prewar intelligence—gaining national attention and enthusiastic support from the party’s base.
Still, Reid is constrained by his role as Senate minority leader. “Reid and [chief of staff Susan] McCue have all the power in the party, because they’re the only ones left standing,” says the strategist. “But it’s hard for them to run against Washington, because they’re also trying to get things done.” At a recent Reid strategy meeting, says one participant, “we talked a lot about what Newt Gingrich did [in 1994].” One key point that emerged: Gingrich was perfectly willing to sacrifice his own in order to bring about change. And Reid is not. “Harry Reid’s not looking to destroy the institution. He’s not willing to blow it up to win.”
Exhibit A came last week, when Reid’s office issued a document attacking 33 Republican senators on everything from “Abramoff Connections” to miscellaneous sins like being “Out of Touch.” On its own, the document was hardly remarkable—if it had come from the party’s Senate campaign committee or the House, no one would have noticed. But the Senate still prides itself on being civil. It’s actually against Senate rules to impugn the character of another member on the floor. Soon, Reid was getting angry phone calls from fellow members. “It was a declaration of war,” says one Republican senator named in the document. Eventually, Reid apologized.
Reid also has image problems of his own. As Republicans have noted, he has accepted some $61,000 from Indian tribes that had affiliations with Abramoff. Reid has said he’s never met Abramoff or taken money from him; yet he’s been asked repeatedly by reporters if he will return the tribal money (he says no).
THAT UNDERSCORES A Democratic fear that their efforts to capitalize on the corruption theme could devolve into a tit-for-tat—with each side accusing the other of ethical impropriety and the public dismissing it all as a partisan spat. To some extent, the competing ethics proposals put forward last week only heighten this risk, since many of the practices targeted for reform have long been common among members of both parties. One Hill aide recalls that, as Democrats were finalizing their package, “that was the number-one fear: that we were setting ourselves up for gotchas.”
Or charges of opportunism. A frequently overlooked piece of Gingrich’s success was that he had been building up to it for years. “As soon as he came to Congress in 1979, he started going after Democrats on ethics,” says Jack Pitney, a professor at Claremont McKenna College who has written extensively on Republicans in Congress. Gingrich waited for years before getting a perfect shot in 1994. Yet, even if they were presented with that kind of opportunity, it’s not clear Democrats would be able to capitalize on it. “It’s hard for Democrats to be Newt Gingrich. It’s just not who we are,” says pollster Mark Mellman. “One can bewail and bemoan that, but it’s just a fact.”
Liz Marlantes is the congressional correspondent for ABC News.
This article appeared in the February 6, 2006 issue of the magazine.