40 Years in the Political Wilderness


Washington -- Today, as yesterday, and tomorrow, Republicans in the House of Representatives will set a record. Every day they extend the longest consecutive span in minority status. Labor Day will be their 14,488th day laboring in opposition.

Between the Lincoln and Eisenhower administrations, neither party had been in the House minority for more than 16 consecutive years. Republicans passed that point 24 years ago, during Nixon's first term. Only three of the 256 House Democrats have ever served in the minority and none of the 178 Republicans has ever served in the majority. Thirteen of the Republicans had not been born when their party lost its last House majority in 1954.

These computations are from political scientists William Connelly Jr. of Washington and Lee University and John Pitney Jr. of Claremont McKenna College in their paper "The Future of the House Republicans." They note that Democrats hold 61 of the 65 "majority-minority" districts, where racial or ethnic minority groups are the majority. Most are safe Democratic seats. Republicans would have to win 58 percent of all other districts to capture the House.

However, the racial gerrymandering that creates many of the "majority-minority" districts often makes it easier for Republicans to win districts contiguous to those "majority-minority" districts. This is because minorities who are reliable Democratic voters are swept together from what were other districts. It will be condign punishment if Democrats suffer serious reverses because of this reverse discrimination that they support.

House Democrats may seem more united than they were when Ronald Reagan was elected, but this is partly because in 1981 there were nine more conservative white Southerners among the Democratic majority than there are now. Furthermore, Democrats achieve an appearance of unity by limiting the amendments that can be offered to bills. (In 1977-78 most rules regulating House treatment of bills were "open rules," under which any member could offer any germane amendment to a bill. Only 15 percent were "restrictive rules." In this Congress, more than 70 percent of the House rules have been "restrictive.")

Even so, Chuck Raasch of the Gannett News Service reports that on five crucial votes, on the things President Clinton brags about -- the budget, NAFTA, the Brady bill and two votes on the crime bill -- only 63 Democrats supported the president consistently. Three-quarters of the Democrats did not.

For the first time in a long time Republicans are winning some national polls asking "Would you prefer to vote for a Republican or Democrat for Congress?" Because Republicans usually have higher turnouts than Democrats, particularly in off-year elections with a Democrat in the White House, Republicans would be positioned to gain if they were even four or five points behind.

But Messrs. Connelly and Pitney note that "generalized anti-incumbency" could injure Republicans. If every incumbent who won in 1992 with less than 55 percent were defeated this November, 50 Democrats would fall -- but so would 46 Republicans. And if everyone who won last time with less than 51 percent were beaten, Republicans would have a net loss of four seats.

Republicans are trying to leaven anti-incumbency with ideology. House Republicans, whose two most aggressive leaders are former college professors (Newt Gingrich and Dick Armey), believe that the more ideas matter, the more seats they will win. Their strategy is to nationalize congressional elections around strong themes and specific proposals which will be unveiled at a September 27 "Contract with America" event on the Capitol steps.

There all House Republican candidates will pledge themselves to certain things. The details are still being decided and it is unclear whether the price of unanimity will be mushiness. The evidence so far is depressing.

For example, the current plan is to not challenge existing tax rates. If that is the message September 27, then the party that emphatically opposed Clinton's tax increases will be saying that those new rates are now necessary. That will not convince the country that the party is serious about the serious business of limiting government.

But wait, there is worse.

Last week a House Republican Conference press release titled "Countdown to September 27" trumpeted that "Republicans stand for change and reform," even "revolutionary" measures. But this is the full text of what the press release had to say about what the "contract" will say about the really significant reform that more than three-quarters of the American people favor: "Term Limits -- Allows consideration of 6-year and 12-year term limits."

"Allows consideration of"? That is a kazoo, not a trumpet. If Republicans cannot do better than such timidity, they deserve to go on setting dismal records for electoral futility.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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