What Class of '94 Learned from ReaganRoundup: Talking About History
RONALD REAGAN'S legacy as a party builder has gotten short shrift. The Republicans were able to win a majority in the House in 1994 for the first time in 40 years, and then keep that majority in 1996 for the first time since 1928, because we were close students of Reagan. When House Republicans stood on the Capitol steps in 1994 and announced our Contract With America, we were standing on President Reagan's shoulders. This is not merely a nice phrase. It was true in the issues highlighted, in voter appeal, and in the actual staging of the event.
The issues in the Contract With America were almost entirely derived from Ronald Reagan's speeches dating back into the 1960s. Welfare reform--look at Governor Reagan in 1970 at the National Governors' Conference as the start of a 26-year effort that culminated when President Clinton (having vetoed welfare reform twice) finally signed the welfare reform bill in 1996. Balanced budgets--a thousand Reagan speeches said they were desirable. Tax cuts--they had been the centerpiece of Reagan's economic policies. Stronger defense--again, a key goal of the 1980 Reagan campaign.
The possibility of a Republican majority was a direct result of Reagan's success. In 1974 only 18 percent of the country identified themselves as Republicans. Some people actually talked about the danger of the party's disappearing. Six short years later, Ronald Reagan not only won the election by a surprising margin but also carried the Republicans into control of the Senate and helped them pick up 33 seats in the House. Thanks to the rise of Reagan Democrats and their conversion into Republicans, by 1994 we had enough candidates and enough potential voters to be competitive for the first time since the Great Depression.
And the Capitol steps event itself was modeled on a similar Reagan event. In 1980, Guy VanderJagt, Bill Brock, and I approached Governor Reagan and his campaign about hosting an event in which every federal candidate in the Republican party would be given an opportunity to stand with him on key issues. The result was that in late September every House and Senate candidate stood with Reagan in a national event and made news back home explaining how they agreed with the Reagan platform and disagreed with the liberal platform. The result was a stunning upset as six new Republican senators were elected by a combined margin of less than 75,000 votes. The 1994 Contract ceremony on the Capitol steps was drawn directly from that 1980 experience....
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