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Back in May of 1994, the 2nd Congressional District of Kentucky held a special election to fill the seat following the passing of Democrat William Natcher. The district had not elected a Republican in 129 years, but Republican Ron Lewis won by a wide margin. Seven months later, Republicans won 54 more seats to take the majority for the first time since 1954.
Can the Republicans do it again and win the 40 seats necessary to win the House majority in the 112th Congress?
The 1994 Republican Revolution had three major components: an unpopular president in Bill Clinton, an unpopular legislative initiative in HillaryCare, and a popular political vision in the Contract with America.
Today, like 1994, a new Democrat president is overreaching in an attempt to centralize the nation's health care system in Washington in lockstep with a congressional leadership that is far to the left of the American public.
Tax-and-spend legislative agendas bent on income redistribution may sit well with the academics and the beautiful people, but not regular Americans who gets stuck with the bills.
Democrats are reading the tea leaves and heading for the door with senators retiring, a House Democrat switching parties and a wave of Blue Dog Democrats hanging up their spurs. There is no doubt that Republicans will make substantial gains, but there is a big difference between winning seats and winning a majority. The latter will require a bold agenda, and the blueprints can be found when you look at the lessons of 1994.
The main lesson from 1994 is that when Republicans act like Republicans, we win; when we act like Democrats, we lose. If Republicans embrace the energy of the small-government activists showing up at "tea parties," they will be rewarded at the ballot box. These are folks not looking for a new program or entitlement, but holding placards at events saying, "We want less."
Back in the early 1990s, the idea of a Republican majority was remote. Congressional Republicans were for the most part happy and comfortable in the minority, enjoying the perks of being a member of Congress. All and all, it was a friendly place.
Newt Gingrich, Bob Walker, Jim Nussle, John A. Boehner and I didn't come to Washington to relax in a congenial atmosphere. We came to re-create a limited-government legislative majority. We thought that Washington had grown too big and was spending too much, and that if we had a clear policy alternative, good policy would make good politics. That's still the case. We will know in a few months whether today's Republicans can capitalize on that reality.
Back then, our offices quickly went to work creating a document, along with outside help from respected conservatives. One of my guys, Kerry Knott, came up with the idea of creating a "contract" that would be a set of policy commitments. If we failed to bring it to the floor, we expected the voters to hold us accountable. This was not petty politics, but a very serious and binding pledge.
We knew that we needed to be bold about defending personal and economic liberty. The contract was about shrinking the size of government, promoting transparency, lowering taxes, restoring sanity to the budget and unleashing entrepreneurial activity. It tied each point to a specific piece of legislation - all popular, but blocked by Democrats. We kept the document focused on economics and good government designed to appeal to both the conservative base and independent voters.
The effect of the contract was to nationalize the policy vision of the Republican Party. We stood for something. Too often, conservatives fear the public won't understand our principles. But the contract proved otherwise; We were bold, gave the voters a clear alternative - and we were embraced.
Fast-forward to today, and two of the three components from the '94 Republican Revolution are in place. President Obama is a disappointment to his base and independents. They were looking for change, not new government programs for every problem. Democrats have also failed on policy and own the calamitous stimulus packages and trillion-dollar deficits. Democrat leadership has no credibility on fiscal issues - and the hostile government takeover of health care has been rejected by the electorate.
But it was easier for the Republicans in 1994 than it is today to try and earn the support of the voters because back in the early 1990s, no one remembered what a Republican Congress looked like. Following the contract, the GOP was shining for a few years, holding the line on government and setting up the budget surpluses, but policy discipline broke down and was replaced with politics. Voters remember the years of overspending, the earmark explosion and bailouts.
To prove they are different and to earn the grass-roots support, Republicans will have to be bold on policy that will get to the heart of the problem: Americans think the government has grown too big and spends too much. Maybe the grass roots will supply the boldness for party leaders.
One of the best ideas comes from Ryan Hecker, a tea party leader in Houston. Mr. Hecker has launched a Web site called spiritof94.org to gather ideas for a new contract, a Contractfrom America that will be written by grass roots activists. Republicans would do well by listening to him and embracing this project. Not surprisingly, the most popular issues are shrinking government, restoring constraints to the budget and transparency. The Contract from America will be completed by April 15 and promoted by 2010 tea parties to be held in hundreds of cities across the country.
If the Republican Party wants to find its way out of the wilderness this year, it will need to live up to its promises of limited government, embrace the tea party movement and allow the movement to set the agenda. This is the formula for success for everyone who believes in limited government, whether they belong to the tea parties or the Republican Party.
Dick Armey is the chairman of FreedomWorks, a national grass-roots organization dedicated to lower taxes, less government and more freedom.