WASHINGTON -- The second-ranking Democrat in the House sees parallels between now and 1994, when his party -- entrenched in power but shaken by dissension in the ranks and tied to a president in political trouble -- suffered a stunning defeat in the November elections.
But this time it's Republicans who are in the majority, find themselves divided on key issues and led by a president whose approval ratings are falling. If the election "were held today, we'd absolutely win back the House," Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland boasted recently.
Hoyer speaks from experience. He was a front-line victim of the 1994 Republican revolution in which the GOP reclaimed the Senate and seized control of the House after 40 years in the political wilderness. Senior Democrats like Hoyer, who might have raised the gavel as Speaker of the House, instead have been stuck for the last 10 years in the minority.
Political analysts say Hoyer's assessment, while accurate in capturing the current GOP malaise, fails to recognize several dynamics that make 2004 different from 1994.
Unlike a decade ago, a presidential election will influence House races. Fewer competitive seats exist due to redistricting, and Democrats are at a disadvantage because of a reconfigured map in Texas that favors Republicans.
Democrats also have no ideological equivalent to Newt Gingrich, the firebrand who rose from the House backbenches to lead the GOP to majority control.
Roger Davidson, visiting professor of political science at the University of California, Santa Barbara, said that while Republicans may have good reason to be worried about the president's declining popularity, Democrats "would have to win just about all the seats that are deemed to be grabable."
What the analysts and Hoyer do agree upon is that President Bush and his allies in Congress have fostered a rare sense of unity among Democrats.
"There's nothing like a hated opposition figure to unite your party," said Allan J. Lichtman, a political historian at American University.
Former House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, at a recent Cato Institute forum on the Republican revolution of 1994, acknowledged that their victory was in part a rejection of Democrats.
After President Clinton won the White House in 1992, "they controlled everything," Armey said of Democrats. "They committed extraordinarily scary overreaches. Most notably, of course, was Hillary's (first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton's) health care plan. And the American public was prepared to say 'those guys are scary.'"
"We took, I think, maximum advantage of the moment that history gave us," Armey said.
Hoyer maintains that voters now are equally uneasy with Bush's Iraq policy and infighting between Republicans in Congress over deficits and tax cuts.
"What they did in '94 was they voted for change," he said. "They voted against the Democrats, not for Republicans."
The GOP picked up 54 House seats that year, giving it a majority for the first time in four decades. Democrats need a net gain of only 12 seats this year to take control, but Lichtman points out there are far fewer competitive seats than 10 years ago and Democrats start out in the hole because of post-2000 census redistricting.
"A lot of things would have to break badly for the administration" for the Democrats to have a chance of winning the House, he said.
Gingrich, the former Georgia congressman who became speaker after the 1994 upset, stresses that his crusade was unique because he also was fighting party elders who over the years had become too comfortable with the big government policies of the Democratic majority.
"We had zero interest in electing a majority that behaved like a normal Congress. Our interest was to dramatically change the system," he said.
Within 100 days of taking power, Republicans pushed their "Contract With America" through Congress and eventually scored major legislative victories in cutting taxes, reforming welfare and reducing the size of government.
Gingrich said Republicans could have a "smashing election" this fall if they offer clear choices on big issues such as Social Security reform and appeal to the large pool of uncommitted voters, particularly young people.
If not, "they are going to have a real hard time in September and October," he said.