The rise and fall of the Republican Revolution

January 7, 2011

Elizabeth Schulte explains how Newt Gingrich and the Republican "revolutionaries" who took over Congress in 1994 rapidly became the most hated men in U.S. politics.

AS THE Republicans get ready to take over the House of Representatives, the last time that they had a majority--during the "Republican Revolution" of 1994--is fresh in their minds.

The rhetoric is familiar--a fake populist rant about taking back America for the little people and taking up the battle against "big government."

Many of the players are familiar, too. Corporate America's go-to guy, John Boehner from Ohio, helped come up with the Republicans' 1994 "Contract with America"--today, he's set to take his place as House Speaker. Dick Armey, then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich's right-hand man, has a slightly different role today--he's the force behind FreedomWorks, which helped propel so many Tea Party Republicans into Congress.

Of course, Newt Gingrich--the architect of the Republican Revolution--is never too far away. Neither is Republican arrogance.

The November 1994 election was the first time in 40 years that the Republicans had a majority in both houses of Congress. And they smelled blood.

Newt Gingrich and fellow Republicans announce their "Contract with America"
Newt Gingrich and fellow Republicans announce their "Contract with America"

The anti-poor, take-no-prisoners, social-safety-net-shearing reality of the Republican agenda was clear from the beginning. A Time magazine cover in December 1994 featured a picture of incoming Gingrich dressed as a combination of Uncle Sam and Scrooge from Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol. "Uncle Scrooge" read the headline, along with: "'Tis the season to bash the poor. But is Newt Gingrich really that heartless?"

The answer was--and is--yes.

GINGRICH'S CONTRACT with America--or more precisely, "Contract on America"--was a 10-point program that the new Republican majority said it would enact in its first 100 days in office. The Contract planks had titles like the Fiscal Responsibility Act, the Taking Back Our Streets Act and the Personal Responsibility Act. Its purpose, plain and simple, was to shred the federal social safety net and enrich Corporate America.

First on the chopping block was cutting welfare and other social programs. More than 100 federal programs were to be abolished altogether, and replaced with grants to states, where lawmakers at the state levels could ratchet benefits and spending down further. Gingrich even proposed opening orphanages to reduce the welfare rolls--and barring legal immigrants from federal programs such as student loans, school lunches and disability payments for the elderly.

The Republicans used tough-on-crime and national security rhetoric to direct more money to domestic law enforcement and national defense. And they used "family values" and "personal responsibility" to put forward pet projects like abstinence-only education.

The leading lights of the Religious Right, like Ralph Reed of the Christian Coalition, anointed Gingrich's pro-family values agenda with their approval. But for all their holier-than-thou talk, the Republican revolutionaries would be one of the most scandal-plagued Congresses in history.

The hypocrites included Mark Foley of Florida, forced to resign in 2006 after it was exposed that he sent sexually suggestive texts to teenage congressional pages; Mark Souder of Indiana, a married abstinence-only booster who had an affair with a staffer with whom he was working abstinence-only project; and Bob Ney, who ended up in prison for his role in the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal.

While they pretended to be working for the little people, the Republicans had plenty to offer Corporate America in the Contract on America--including tax cuts for rich and deregulation.

In the early days of the "revolution," corporate lobbyists for dozens of firms, including the tobacco industry, and business organizations, such as the National Association of Manufacturers, helped the new regime come up with legislation. "Gingrich has come to represent the ombudsman for American business," said Charles Lewis of the Center for Public Integrity, quoted in the book Washington Babylon. "If you've got a problem with the federal government, go see Newt. That's the message that's being sent out."

So if this was a revolution, it was decidedly a revolution from above.

In addition, Republican politicians across the country unleashed a wave of anti-immigrant and other scapegoating legislation at the local level. This included California's anti-immigrant Prop 187, a ballot measure to deny access to education and medical care to undocumented immigrants and their children. In Georgia, a "two-strikes-and-you're-out" sentencing referendum was put up for a vote.

These ballot measures went hand in hand with an ideological assault on poor and working-class people, particularly minorities. For example, 1994 was the year that the racist book Bell Curve came out, proposing that there was a correlation between race and intelligence. Backed up with this pseudo-science, it was obvious that politicians were using "welfare" as a racial code word to scapegoat African Americans--even though a majority of recipients were white.

The 1994 Republican victory cemented the Republicans control of South, where it had been gaining ground on the Democrats in the decades after the civil rights movement, by playing upon its record of racism.

In the House, Republicans made a net gain of 52 seats for a comfortable majority. In the Senate, nine seats shifted to the Republicans.

While President Bill Clinton and the Democrats bemoaned the Republican victory, they had only themselves to blame. The influx of Republicans represented less an embracing of conservative policies than disappointment with the broken promises of the Clinton administration. Voters in the 1994 election weren't rejecting Clinton's so-called liberal agenda--instead, they didn't turn out to vote for the party that had broken so many of its promises from only two years earlier.

From its failure to pass health care reform legislation to the invasion of Haiti to the passage of the corporate-friendly North American Free Trade Agreement, the Democratic Party agenda in the Clinton era gave people little to rally around.

Despite this, the Republicans tossed their weight around in Washington as if they had a mandate to do whatever they pleased. And the Democrats acted like the Republicans had a mandate, too.

Clinton claimed in rhetoric that he was opposing some elements of the Republican agenda, even as he adopted other parts as his own. But he also adopted "bipartisan" stance in the hopes of finding a message that would assure Corporate America that Washington was united in working for its priorities. Thus, during his 1996 State of the Union address, Clinton proclaimed, "The era of big government is over."

While Clinton and the Democrats claimed that their welfare "reform" proposals weren't as mean-spirited as those made by the Gingrich Republicans, in the end, the Democrats succeeded in passing legislation that the Republicans could not--thoroughly shredding federal programs to poor families.

"I THINK we'll have a good run," Gingrich told Time in December 1994. "My guess is it will last 30 or 40 years." This, of course, turned out to be a delusion.

Despite the media claim at the time about how the Republican Revolution represented a long-term conservative shift in America politics, the Republicans didn't get what they wanted from their "revolution."

In fact, upon closer examination, not everyone was won over by the Republicans' Contract on America, even at the time. A Time/CNN poll in December 1994 found, according to Time:

[O]n specific issues of welfare and immigration reform, there's not much support for the harshest measures. Fully 78 percent of those questioned thought the welfare system was in need of a fundamental shake-up, and 52 percent thought government should spend less on it.

But 52 percent also said it would be unfair to end payments after two years to people who had no other sources of income...and majorities opposed denying welfare benefits to unwed teen mothers or to children whose fathers could not be identified. All of which are proposals in the House GOP Contract with America.

What fewer people remember about this era is that there was a wave of protests against Gingrich and the Contract on America.

More than 100 jobless welfare recipients took over a House Ways and Means Committee hearing on welfare reform, with signs reading "Put Newt in an Orphanage." Republican committee members were driven from the room.

In March 1994, 400 unionists from a dozen unions--including nurses, electricians, communications workers, truckers and government employees--took over Gingrich's offices in Marietta, Ga., for nearly an hour. "We ain't waiting two years for another election," Stewart Acuff, president of the Atlanta Labor Council, told reporters. "If you're determined to rip our guts out, you're going to have a fight on your hands."

They were there to protest Gingrich's promise to block a bill that would raise the minimum wage from $4.25 to $5 an hour and another that would keep companies from hiring permanent replacements for striking workers. "Today you see how angry working people are. You'll see how angry working people are again in the future," said Acuff.

The next week, Jobs with Justice members occupied Gingrich's offices in Washington, D.C.

Political activists as well as people directly affected by the cuts, such as the elderly and welfare recipients, organized protests and pickets--large and small--to dog Gingrich wherever he turned up. Gingrich had to cancel a speech in March 1995 at a posh luncheon in Washington when 500 protesters "burst through the kitchen doors, chanting 'No more cuts' and waving empty lunch trays to dramatize planned reductions to the federal government school lunch program," Socialist Worker reported at the time.

In late March, students took part in a day of action against education cuts and the Contract with America, with hundreds turning out for rallies, teach-ins and other actions in New York, Georgia, Michigan, Ohio, California and elsewhere. In Ithaca, N.Y., students built a shantytown of cardboard boxes and called it "Newtville."

These protests were organized not by the Democratic Party establishment but by ordinary people who took issue with the Republicans' dangerous policies.

Nor was Gingrich the only focus of organizing and activism--workers began to take on Corporate America at the source. The mid-1990s were also the years of the A.E. Staley lockout in Decatur, Ill., where rank-and-file workers led a battle against corporate greed in the central Illinois region that would become known as the "War Zone."

Locally, workers and students organized protests against the state government's attempts at cutbacks. In Indianapolis, 25,000 unionists demonstrated against the state legislature's plan to repeal the state's "prevailing wage" law. More than 10,000 students marched in New York. In Virginia, protests organized at public hearings--and a demonstration of thousands at the state Capitol--forced the legislature to reject a budget proposal that would have given gave away $2.1 billion in tax cuts while slashing aid to education and the poor.

Unfortunately, activists were unable to sustain or link together these struggles in order to take on the Washington's cuts as a whole. So Clinton was able to push through many aspects of the Republican agenda while facing little protest. These proposals included the 1994 Crime Bill, the 1996 Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act and the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act. In 1997, he signed off on a budget that sliced billions away from Medicaid and Medicare.

In the end, it wasn't Gingrich but Clinton who really Scrooged poor and working-class Americans by winning his version of welfare "reform." The law, passed in the months before Clinton's reelection campaign in 1996, eliminated federal standards for welfare benefits, imposed a five-year lifetime limit and two-year continuous limit on benefits, barred immigrants from receiving welfare and cut $24 billion from the federal food-stamp program. As a result, millions of children were thrown into poverty.

The era also witnesses an enormous transfer of wealth from the bottom to the very top of society. Between 1992 and 1997, corporate profits grew by an average of 15 percent annually. Meanwhile, of the 22.5 million jobs created during the 1990s "boom," about half of them pay less than $7 an hour.

As Peter Edelman, who resigned from Clinton's Health and Human Services in protest of welfare reform, wrote in 1997, "The story has never been fully told, because so many of those who would have shouted their opposition from the rooftops if a Republican president had done this were boxed in by their desire to see the president re-elected, and in some cases by their own votes for the bill."

TODAY, AS Republicans are poised to make their mark in Congress, there are lessons to learn from 1994, and there are important differences, too.

The economic crisis is much worse today, and the corresponding push for austerity--from Republicans and Democrats alike--will be that much greater. The federal deficit is projected to exceed $1 trillion in 2011, compared with $152 billion in fiscal 1995.

But today, maybe even more so than in 1994, it's clear that the politicians aren't speaking for ordinary Americans--and the gap between what passes for political discourse in Washington and among workers is growing into a grand canyon.

Despite all the Republican rhetoric about the disastrous consequences of "big government," an October study released by the Washington Post, the Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University found that more people wanted Congress to spend money creating jobs in the district now, even if it means higher deficits, than in 1994.

Other polls show that people are looking to more reasonable ways of balancing the budget besides taking it from social programs. According to a 60 Minutes/Vanity Fair poll released January 3, "61 percent of Americans polled would rather see taxes for the wealthy increased as a first step to tackling the deficit," reported Reuters. "The next most popular way--chosen by 20 percent--was to cut defense spending."

These kinds of solutions have to be pushed to the forefront, in opposition to the sacrifice that the politicians in Washington--Democrats and Republicans--are trying to put forward. It's time to start making Corporate America pay for the crisis, and stop letting them tell workers and the poor to tighten our belts.

The struggles of 1994 showed that even if they have a majority, the Republicans can be set back--if we build our own grassroots struggle to take them on, along with their miserable policies.

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