Eight years ago I sat in a small room on a Wednesday morning at the Cobb County Galleria Center having breakfast. The was nothing extraordinary about the breakfast: scrambled eggs, bacon, and fruit.
What was extraordinary were my breakfast companions that morning; House Speaker Newt Gingrich and senior advisor Joe Gaylord.
These two men had planned the Contract With America/GOP Revolution in 1994 and were expecting another GOP tsunami in 1998 as President William Jefferson Clinton was teetering on the edge of impeachment. The polls showed them winning fifteen seats. In the end, the Democrats picked up five.
Shortly after breakfast, I waited in the back of the room as Newt stood in front of a backdrop emblazoned with “America’s Victory” and gave his post-election morning press conference. He was asked by CNN’s Bob Franken who the Republicans should blame for the disappointing results. Newt’s response was suicide. He said they should blame him.
I turned to one of my fellow staffers and said, “We won’t last a week.”
We lasted two days.
Early on in 2006, I started to feel a cold chill creeping into my bones. It was all too familiar. Although, even after eight years, I’ve only managed to reach the age of 30, I got so used to that feeling in 1998 that I recognized it immediately when it came back this year.
I started at Friends of Newt Gingrich, the Speaker’s campaign office, in February of 1998. It had been barely three weeks since the world had learned the name “Monica Lewinsky.” Over the next nine months, that name would become burned into our minds with the constant drumbeat of investigations, punditry, and political speeches. Congress came to a standstill, obsessed with Lewinsky. All the while, I heard constant complaints of higher government spending, more earmarks and pork barrel, lack of action on taxes and Social Security reform, and other key issues that GOP voters held dear and expected their elected Representatives to address. The base felt the ideals of the 1994 Revolution were dead and the Gingrich Congress was just going along to get along, convinced Lewinsky would carry the day.
The Gingrich lead Congress had lost its first love, and the voters held them to account.
2006 was no different.
This year, the signs were there early, and we knew it, but for whatever reason, our leadership did nothing about it. The based cried out for immigration reform, tax reform, and a leaner, smaller government. What the Republican base got was inaction on immigration, stalling on tax cuts, a bloated new Medicare program, and an even more bloated budget with the kind of pork that we once railed against the Democrats for earmarking, scandals, lobbyists, corruption, and finally, Mark Foley.
The President and Karl Rove mistakenly believed that the War on Terror would carry the day, and the President and Congress could ignore the base’s pleading for a new direction. They were wrong. They too had lost their first love.
After the 1998 elections, Newt blamed the media for talking about nothing but Lewinsky and scandal, even though earlier in the year, he had pledged to talk about nothing but the scandals until Election Day.
Likewise, Bush dictated that Iraq would be the issue that was to carry the day. “Cut and Run” became the mantra of the GOP, and even a late slam against our soldiers by John Kerry could not stem the tide of discontent Republicans who wanted to talk about immigration and taxes and reducing the size of government.
In 2006, the Republican lampstand was finally removed. We lost the trust to govern because we squandered the opportunity to govern.
But the silver lining is already here. While the GOP many have to wander in the wilderness of minority for two years, the era of Speaker Pelosi will provide our party a golden opportunity to get back to its core roots. The Gingrich Revolution was built on the promotion of the core concepts of the party backed by a realization by the voters of the true nature of the Democrat concept of governing. After twelve years of Reagan-Bush, Republicans forgot what Americans expected out of the party and Americans forgot about what they could expect out of Democrat Presidents. If another champion of conservatism is able to find a voice within the Republican Party, there is a good chance that the base will be brought back and enthusiastically support our candidates, especially after two years of San Francisco style liberalism.
If the Democrats look at their slim majority as a greater mandate for their liberal agenda, they will sow the seeds of their own demise. Americans are neither ready nor willing to accept the true Democrat agenda; Americans just did not trust the current incarnation of the GOP to govern. They long ago realized that the Republicans had forsaken their first love. It’s a pity the Republican leadership did not.
Jason Shepherd, a former campaign aide to House Speaker Newt Gingrich, is the current State Chairman of the Georgia Federation of Young Republican Clubs. Shepherd lives in Kennesaw, Ga with his wife, Manuela.