Judis is a senior editor at the New Republic and author of Grand Illusion: Critics and Champions of the American Century.
Q: What mistakes led to the Republicans’ declining popularity?
A: Newt and his people had the same illusion that Phil Gramm did — that they could win the election just by getting the most money. Newt was impressed by the idea of machine politics and thought that once he was in, he could consolidate his control by getting all these PACs to go from the Democrats to the Republicans. He would monopolize the campaign funding, and that would be it. The Republicans would enjoy the benefits of incumbency, and the Democrats would be in the minority. He forgot about the representational factor and the ideological factor: In order to keep winning elections, a majority of the people have to think that you’re on their side.
Q: How did the Republicans start to lose the majority of voters?
A: The Republicans have had a model of the ordinary American as a small-business man. That’s not completely faulty. There are as many self-employed Schedule C people now as there are blue-collar manufacturing workers, and that category is likely to grow. But the Republicans still are the party of business, not ordinary working people. They win because the Democrats do things on social questions that completely discredit them. Lots of people think Newt just blew it tactically. There’s some justification to that view, that he really did have the basis for a new majority: Play the race card, but subtly; get tough on crime and welfare, but don’t go overboard; do the family tax cuts and the capital gains together; don’t go crazy on the environment — there was never a mandate for that; and outmaneuver Clinton on the budget in such a way that he gets the blame when things don’t go right. They made a number of tactical mistakes on issues like the environment and Medicare, where they had to choose between constituencies. On the environment, it was companies that wanted deregulation. On Medicare, the reforms they wanted were very much in the interests of the particular insurance companies that had put money into the Republicans. And the GOP leaders weren’t willing to say to the companies, “I’m sorry, we won’t be able to do what you want this time around.” If Newt could have said no to these people, he’d have had a good chance to have a stable coalition and a majority until at least 2000.
Q: Was the GOP serious about Perot-type reforms?
A: They took the Perot reforms and marketed them in their Contract. On those, Gingrich got a good start the first few weeks. But then they dropped it. Of course , they didn’t do campaign finance reform. One thing they said they did was lobbying reform, but that’s likely to turn out to be a farce. Term limits was just a way of trying to get rid of the Democratic majority in the House. It wasn’t a sincere political reform. There is an element of cynical calculation. With the takings legislation, they always put forward these people who have beachfront property that’s getting zoned in the wrong way. But in fact it’s the timber interests or the oil companies that are really putting up the money and backing this stuff, and Newt and his people know that. There are a lot of small-property owners who get on this bandwagon and don’t understand that they’re just fronting for the big companies that want to resist regulation.