ARCHIVAL (NBC NEWS, 9-27-94):TOM BROKAW: Republicans now are beginning to talk openly about taking control of the House and the Senate.
LINDA KILLIAN (AUTHOR: THE FRESHMEN: WHAT HAPPENED TO THE REPUBLICAN REVOLUTION?): Sometimes midterms can be not that interesting. Voters arent paying attention in the way they are surrounding a presidential election. The stakes often seem lower. But the 1994 election was without a doubt one of the most significant of the 20th century.
ARCHIVAL:RUSH LIMBAUGH: This is one of the most profound days in American history.
ARCHIVAL (ABC, 11-9-94):PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON: We didnt do what the people wanted us to do. I must certainly bear my share of responsibility, and I accept that.
LINDA KILLIAN: It brought to the fore some of these ideas that are still with us. It was just a tremendous landmark election.
ARCHIVAL (C-SPAN, 10-15-92):PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON: You know people whove lost their jobs..WOMAN: Oh yeah.PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON: and lost their homes.WOMAN: Uh-huh.
AL FROM (FORMER DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST): Bill Clinton was far and away the best politician Ive ever seen.
ARCHIVAL (C-SPAN, 10-15-92):PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON: In my state, when people lose their jobs, theres a good chance Ill know them by their names.
AL FROM: He had that easy way of communicating. He could take the most complex idea and explain it in ways that ordinary people could understand. That combination is lethal.
NARRATION: But just two years into his presidency, Bill Clintons centrist charm had already worn off for many Americans.
ARCHIVAL (CBS NEWS, 10-17-94):CONNIE CHUNG: Many Democratic candidates are keeping their distance from the president.
NARRATION: Despite fashioning himself a new kind of Democrat in his run for president
ARCHIVAL (BILL CLINTON CAMPAIGN COMMERCIAL, 1992):They dont think the way the old Democratic Party did.
NARRATION:Clinton had tried to walk a political tightrope that still accomplished liberal policy ideals.
ARCHIVAL (3-17-93):HILLARY CLINTON: Solving our nations healthcare crisis.
NARRATION: Along with tapping the First Lady to lead a failed attempt at universal healthcare, he signed a policy known as Dont Ask, Dont Tell that allowed gays to serve anonymously in the military
ARCHIVAL (2-4-94):PROTESTOR: No gays!
NARRATION: and supported a 10-year ban on high-capacity firearms as part of a major anti-crime bill.
LINDA KILLIAN: A midterm election, people think that its a referendum on the sitting president. And it usually is. Clinton and the Democrats were not all that popular in 1994, and the Republicans really worked to capitalize that.
ARCHIVAL (JIM INHOFE CAMPAIGN COMMERCIAL):Dance lessons, midnight basketball, new restrictive gun controls.
LINDA KILLIAN: The rallying cry for Republicans that year was God, guns and gays. God, lets take religion into account, anti-abortion. Gays, because Clinton had signed the Dont Ask, Dont Tell bill and guns, because an assault weapons ban had been passed. It was this culture war strain.
ARCHIVAL (WABC RADIO, 2-18-94):ANNOUNCER: Here is Rush Limbaugh.RUSH LIMBAUGH: As you know my friends, we count the days of the raw deal, thats what they call the Clinton administration.
NARRATION: Fueling the Clinton opposition, a new media was consuming American politics: talk radio.
ARCHIVAL:CROWD: Rush is right!
NARRATION: Millions of listeners tuned in each day to hear conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh rail against Clinton and his policy proposals.
ARCHIVAL (WABC RADIO, 2-18-94):RUSH LIMBAUGH: The motto of this administration every day is, what can we do to fool em today? What can we get away with today?
AL FROM: One of the reasons that presidents drop among persuadable voters is because they sort of lose control of their agenda. I found a memo that I had done to Clinton two or three weeks before the election, saying, you know, this isnt going to turn out well.
ARCHIVAL (6-5-92):NEWT GINGRICH: Doing whatever they want without any regard for the American people.
NARRATION: In the early 1990s, a relatively unknown congressman from Georgia had grabbed the spotlight by going into attack mode against the Democrats.
ARCHIVAL (11-12-93):NEWT GINGRICH: And that they are cheerfully spending their children and their grandchildrens money.
NARRATION: Now sensing that the time was ripe for upending 40 years of Democratic control of the House, Newt Gingrich fielded a slate of Republican candidates committed in their conservatism.
LINDA KILLIAN: Democrats are seen as the party of big government. And this is what Republicans were running against. They wanted to say, were outsiders. Were coming in. Were going to shake up the system.
STEVE LARGENT (FORMER U.S. REPRESENTATIVE): I was not only disinterested in running for Congress, I had not even run for student council in high school. And it was really my wife whispering in my ear that I needed to consider running. And so I did.
NARRATION: For 14 years, Steve Largent had been a star wide receiver for the Seattle Seahawks, setting records across the N.F.L. during a Hall of Fame career. After retiring and moving back to Oklahoma, he joined a new wave of conservatives hoping to make their mark in 1994.
STEVE LARGENT: There was a gut reaction for a lot of Americans to send a message to this president.
ARCHIVAL (C-SPAN, 9-27-94):ANNOUNCER: The next Speaker of the Peoples House, Newt Gingrich.NEWT GINGRICH: Recognize that if America fails, our children will live on a dark and bloody planet. If the American people accept this contract, we will have begun the journey to renew American civilization.
NARRATION: Just weeks before the midterm elections, Gingrich summoned the Republican House candidates from across the country to sign what he called the Contract with America, a 10-point blueprint for how they would use their newfound power to shrink government within the first 100 days.
ARCHIVAL (ABC NEWS, 9-27-94):NEWS REPORT: Gingrich says the contract gives Republicans more to campaign on than just Clinton-bashing.
LINDA KILLIAN: The Contract with America nationalized the midterm election in a way that midterms often are not. They focus-grouped it, and they honed it down to a lot of fiscal ideas: balancing the budget, reducing the deficit. It was a way to activate the troops and, sort of, talking points that these young Republican candidates could use.
STEVE LARGENT: Having a Contract with America was valuable in the sense that it gave us a playbook to operate from. I dont think anybody who touted the Contract with America ever thought they were going to have to actually do the things that they were saying.
ARCHIVAL (ABC, 11-9-94):NEWS REPORT: By sunrise, the shift in power was so seismic, the earth under the Capitol might as well have moved.
ARCHIVAL (ABC, 11-9-94):NEWS REPORT: Republicans are all smiles this morning.
ARCHIVAL (ABC, 11-9-94):NEWS REPORT: Republicans take control of Congress.
NARRATOR: On Nov. 8, 1994, the Republican tidal wave hit Washington. For the first time in four decades, the G.O.P. took over both houses of Congress, sending 73 newly minted congressmen and women to D.C.
ARCHIVAL (ABC, 11-9-94):NEWT GINGRICH: If this is not a mandate to move in a particular direction, I would like somebody to explain to me what a mandate would look like.
ARCHIVAL (C-SPAN, 12-10-94):RUSH LIMBAUGH: This is not the time to get moderate. This is not the time to start gaining the approval of the people you just defeated.
LINDA KILLIAN: For decades, the Democrats and the Republicans together had a joint orientation about how government works. Well, the Republican freshmen in 1994 wanted none of that. They had their own orientation and they invited Rush Limbaugh to be their guest speaker.
ARCHIVAL (C-SPAN, 12-10-94):RUSH LIMBAUGH: I want to warn you, you will never, ever be their friends.
NARRATION: Throughout 1995, Clinton and his allies in Congress thwarted much of Gingrichs proposed Contract with America, but the focus then shifted to passing a federal budget. For Gingrich and his followers, this was the time to dig in their heels.
ARCHIVAL (11-13-95):NEWS REPORT: Republicans leaders, however, say they will not send the president the legislation he wants.NEWT GINGRICH: No, we will not send him clean bills.REPORTER: Why?NEWT GINGRICH: Because we want the president to sit down and negotiate.
LINDA KILLIAN: Newt Gingrich thought he could show down Bill Clinton and Bill Clinton would fold, but Bill Clinton didnt fold. And as a result, there was a government shutdown.
ARCHIVAL (11-13-95):NEWS REPORT: With little more than 72 hours left to a possible shutdown.
ARCHIVAL (11-10-95):NEWS REPORT: Federal workers across the nation will be off work at midnight unless some kind of compromise is reached. At this point, however, that doesnt appear likely.
LINDA KILLIAN: Americans didnt like this.
ARCHIVAL (12-18-95):WOMAN: Its really a bad time for this to be happening.WOMAN: I blame all of them.
LINDA KILLIAN: It looked like we couldnt manage our business.
NARRATION: As the shutdown dragged on, becoming the longest in U.S. history to that point, Gingrich finally agreed to compromise, over the objections of many House Republicans, who felt he was giving in.
STEVE LARGENT: I didnt think it was the right decision that he made, but sometimes you have to make tough calls, and you cant please everybody that youre representing. It was a real education in politics for a lot of us about how the system worked, or sometimes didnt work.
NARRATION: After the bitterness of the shutdown, President Clinton and the House Republicans did work together to pass major, and often controversial, new legislation.
LINDA KILLIAN: Actually, in 1996, a lot of legislating got done. People might have problems with it, but the Republicans and the Democrats worked together in a way that would seem almost foreign to us now, and passed a lot of stuff.
ARCHIVAL (8-22-96):PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON: Today we are taking an historic chance to make welfare what it was meant to be: a second chance, not a way of life.
NARRATION: Together, Clinton and the Republicans slashed funding for social welfare programs and barred the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriage a conservative vision that infuriated liberal Democrats, but helped Clinton get re-elected to a second term.
LINDA KILLIAN: That was the message, that things could get done in divided government. But
ARCHIVAL (6-5-92):NEWT GINGRICH: Outrageously high-handed, discouraging.
LINDA KILLIAN: the legacy of the Gingrich era has just been this toxic environment. Now were kind of fighting the same fights.
ARCHIVAL (NBC, NIGHTLY NEWS3-20-22):NEWS REPORT: The newest front in the culture war.
LINDA KILLIAN: Gays, whether you can talk about this in schools.
ARCHIVAL (CNN, 6-24-22):NEWS REPORT: Roe vs. Wade.
LINDA KILLIAN: Abortion bans.
ARCHIVAL (CNN, 6-24-22):WOMAN: This decision is an outrage!
LINDA KILLIAN: Or assault weapons.
ARCHIVAL (PBS NEWSHOUR, 11-17-20):SENATOR TED CRUZ: The political agenda of the left of disarming law abiding citizens.
ARCHIVAL (1-6-21):MAN: Were walking over to the Capitol right now, and I dunno, maybe well break down the doors.
LINDA KILLIAN: This negative polarization has overtaken American government
ARCHIVAL (1-6-21):CROWD: Stop the steal, stop the steal!
LINDA KILLIAN:to the point where it just makes it much, much harder to govern.