"The Republicans Must Get Their Act Together"

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Is there a potential for the 2006 elections to produce the same kind of upheaval on behalf of Democrats that the 1994 midterms did for Republicans? TIME talked to the architect of that victory, which put the GOP in control of the House for the first time in four decades. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said he sees some serious problems brewing for his party that could indeed bring the Democrats back to power. The GOP's main problem, he says, has been its own performance. Given power, the reformers of 12 years ago are behaving just like the Washington insiders they used to consider the problem, he argues. Here are some excerpts of the interview:

Q. Do you see any parallels to 1994 in the current political environment?

A. I've been doing a lot of work on this recently, and I can tell you what the problems are and how to think about a framework.

First of all, it is not very parallel to '94. It is a little parallel to earlier periods where presidents had low poll ratings. It may be more like '78 when Carter was in a little bit of trouble, or '74 for Republicans, or '50 for Truman. My simple-minded theory is that the Democrats are wrong on both policy and implementation. The Republicans are right on policy, but failing on implementation.

What it means is the Republicans [must] get their act together, and understand that the country actually expects the majority to implement. They hire you to govern, not just to tell them why you are right. If they can't do that, at some point, whether it's '06 or '08, the country will decide to take a flyer on the Democrats, because they just get tired of it. That's how American politics works.

Q. So how do the Republicans fix their problem?

A. The Republican challenge is to figure out, how big do the reforms have to be for people to decide that we get it? Because the big problem we have right now is, since the implementation isn't working, people attack the policy. So even if the policy is right, if it's not being implemented right, it feels wrong. I think the White House and the House and Senate Republicans have to understand, if they're not for very bold, dramatic reform, the country is sooner or later going to fire them.

Q. What kind of reform is needed?

A. My favorite example is, did you see the chart [3/20/06] on page six of the Washington Post about what it costs to do 10 cents worth of roofing in New Orleans? It's a chart that says the U.S. government pays $1.75 to the contractor who hires a subcontractor, who hires a sub-subcontractor, who pays a person 10 cents. So you're currently paying $1.75 in your taxes to get 10 cents of roofing.

I called the White House and said you guys ought to be in a rage to change it. And the country doesn't see that [dissatisfaction with the government's own performance]. The country is not seeing the lessons of FEMA failing in New Orleans. They are not seeing the lessons of the bureaucracies failing in Baghdad. The President says the right things, for example, about health information technology. You say, okay, you've been saying this for three years: what's happened? And it's pitiful.

Q. That's the White House. What should the Republicans in Congress be doing in the face of this lack of response?

A. The first thing you do if you're [Senate Majority Leader] Bill Frist and [House Speaker] Denny Hastert is you say to the appropriate committees, "I want hearings on this scandal in New Orleans. I want Republicans saying this is a scandal."

Remember, Ronald Reagan spent eight years in Washington without ever leaving California; these guys are actually behaving like they're in Washington. Well, you can't be a conservative Republican majority that behaves like it's in Washington. Reagan used to have a rule in Sacramento when he was in governor that if people said "we" and they meant the government of California, they had to leave. Because "we" meant the people of California, and not the government. And these guys have got to get this back in their heads.

Q. So how do you see the strategies shaping up for the two parties? Do the Democrats need an agenda of their own, similar to the Contract with America that you ran on in 1994?

A. Here's the core thing for you to think about: The Republican challenge is to get back on offense as the reform party.

The Democrats' challenge is to do one of two things. What they are going to try to do, what they should do, is say nothing except "Had enough?" If they try to wear a mask and pretend to be moderates, Republicans will cheerfully take the mask off.

So the Republican challenge is, prove to the country that this is a choice, not a referendum. The Democratic problem is make this a referendum, not a choice.