In 1994, Republicans captured control of the United States House of Representatives after four decades of Democratic control. Riding on the back of Newt Gingrich and the Contract with America, Republicans picked up 54 seats in what is now regarded as the Republican Revolution. Big change was possible.
In 2002, Georgians elected their first Republican governor after more than 100 years of democratic control. Gov. Sonny Perdue defeated incumbent Democrat Gov. Roy Barnes in what is generally considered one of the greatest political upsets in Georgia political history. Now, republicans control every constitutional office in Georgia and both the Georgia House and Senate.
Some might argue that the 2002 Georgia elections were the inevitable consequence of a changing political landscape. Yet, that would not explain the result. Beginning in 1968, the South had moved republican thanks in large part to President Richard Nixon’s grand southern strategy.
President Ronald Reagan moved the South into the solid red category with sweeping wins in 1980 and 1984. As a result, virtually every other Southern state was Republican long before 2002 and Perdue’s win. Even though the rest of the South had moved to solid red in both national and state elections, Georgia remained a blue state for governors until 2002.
Why? Georgia’s brand of democratic leadership prior to the new millennium differed from the rest of the South. Rather than ride the coattails of institutional power, governors like Zell Miller opted for a different road. Miller offered HOPE. Instead of old, institutionalized, stale, and corrupt power, many Georgia democrats worked hard to keep Georgia one step ahead. It was the political antidote to demographic changes that often led to inevitable changes in the political landscape.
Bold leadership, free of corruption, with a populist agenda can withstand even the greatest of political challenges. It just requires hard work.
In 1994 (in Washington, D.C.) and 2002 (in Georgia), Democrats had abandoned their innovative ways, opting instead for concentrated political power as the best defense to any change — especially changes at the ballot box. There were all kinds of legal solutions, like gerrymandering or changes to how names appeared on the ballot or government handouts — all designed to protect incumbents, control message, and discourage dissent. There was only one problem.
All of these steps for preserving power inevitably create the conditions that threaten power. Concentrated political power inevitably leads to old, institutionalized, stale, and corrupt power. This is true regardless of which party is in power.
In Washington, D.C., Republicans only stayed in power from 1995 until 2007. By the time Democrats regained control of the United States House of Representatives in 2007, Republicans resembled in many respects the folks they had fought hard to replace. Scandal rocked the House as powerful politicians fell. Government handouts and spending steadily increased. And, as the political winds started to change, Republicans huddled up instead of reaching out. In 2006, they lost the House.
Republican majorities can be lost — in Washington, D.C., and at home here in Georgia. After all, governing is very different from campaigning.
It is indeed difficult for a party that fought so hard to replace the ‘old, institutionalized, stale, and corrupt establishment’ to consistently govern without becoming the ‘old, institutionalized, stale, and corrupt establishment.’
It can be done — but only by a lot of hard work. Here are the essential ingredients.
Bold Ideas. Parties in power trend toward the fewest ideas that ‘rock the boat.’ Yet, inevitably, the best ideas come from outside of the box.
The HOPE scholarship was a big idea. There are others. If Georgia wants to make big strides for separating itself from the rest of the pack, then it needs big ideas — such as eliminating Georgia’s income tax. Move the debate from whether to eliminate Georgia’s income tax to how to eliminate Georgia’s income tax. Now, that is a big idea.
Ethics Reform. In big change elections, corruption and ethics are among the centerpieces of successful challenges to institutional political power. The bottom line is that governments either go to ethics or ethics comes to them. It is not enough to rely on the good moral character of politicians elected to public office. The power is too much. The temptations are too great. Many good women and men have found themselves in the middle of a scandal after slipping one inch at a time from honest public service to criminal indictment. Strong ethics laws help prevent that from happening.
Term Limits. Public service changes people. Over time, it dulls the senses and changes the priorities. In the end, idealistic visions of better solutions give way to a steady march toward reelection with the least amount of effort. Fresh ideas, bold solutions, and better ways depend on new people. Voters can make it happen; term limits guarantee it.
Randy Evans is an Atlanta attorney with McKenna Long & Aldrige LLP. He is the former General Counsel of the Georgia Republican Party and remains active in the party on both the state and national level. He can be reached at www.mckennalong.com or McKenna Long & Aldrige LLP, Suite 5300, 303 Peachtree St., Atlanta, GA 30308.