The great choice facing the Republican Party these days is between two roads to electoral redemption. Let's call them Route '66 and Highway '94.
Judging by the reaction of Republican leaders to the ruckus we're seeing at town hall meetings this month, the choice is going to be Highway '94.
Either road recalls an election year in which the GOP made huge gains in the congressional midterms. The years 1966 and 1994 brought the two most fabulously successful election cycles Republicans have had in the House over the Past 60 years.
Not coincidentally, both of these big wins came on the heels of historic GOP disasters: Barry Goldwater's defeat in 1964 and George H.W. Bush's dismissal from office in 1992. Goldwater and Bush were the only Republicans since the Great Depression to fall below 40 percent of the popular vote.
But the GOP comebacks of 1966 and 1994 were more different than alike, and they each offer a different lesson for the Republican Party of today. Let's take them in the order they happened.
The Route '66 comeback was a reassertion of tradition. The party gained a net of 47 seats, mostly by reclaiming districts that were lost in Lyndon Baines Johnson's 1964 landslide, largely in suburbs and other conservative bedrock. The party won because it got past the ideological rigidity of Goldwater and became, quite simply, the default alternative to the Democrats. The natural arc of the nation's political pendulum was restored.
It came as no surprise at the time. The hard-charging LBJ had Congress on a forced march in 1965 and 1966. Together, they invented Medicare and a host of other social programs that Johnson called The Great Society. They also escalated the Vietnam War inherited from JFK. For the first time, federal spending soared past $150 billion a year (not the deficit, mind you, the whole budget).
The parallels with our era are not perfect, but they are striking. Today, President Obama oversees a sudden upturn in federal spending that will surely lead to higher taxes on at least some Americans. Both the spending and the taxes are linked to stubborn, inherited wars overseas and to an expanded role for the government in delivering social goods.
In their 1966 comeback, Republicans won primarily in familiar territory. Most of their freshmen hailed from north of the Mason-Dixon or west of the Mississippi. And many still called themselves moderates, and yes, even liberals.
The same could not be said of the Republicans who stormed to power 28 years later in the second great GOP surge of the half-century. Highway '94 would be radically different, and it would run through entirely new parts of the country.
The Republican charge in 1994 added 52 seats net in the House and a dozen in the Senate. It was led by Southerners such as Newt Gingrich of Georgia, Dick Armey and Tom DeLay of Texas and Trent Lott of Mississippi. A longstanding dam of Democratic sentiment had given way in Dixie.
On a single day in November 1994,the GOP won its first majority of Southern governorships, Senate seats and House seats since Reconstruction. It has held those majorities since.
The more recent resurgence in the GOP was far more than just a regional realignment. Highway '94 ran from coast to coast, reaching deep into rural areas and the outer exurbs, and it carried a powerful resurgence of a harder-edged, more ideological Republicanism associated with Goldwater in 1964 and Ronald Reagan in 1980.
Much of the emotional fire for that resurgence came from a deep-seated animosity against the person of the president himself. The first two years of Bill Clinton's presidency had been a rocky affair, and many conservatives openly challenged his right to be president.
Rumors linked Clinton to various marital infidelities and more. He was not just a draft dodger but a Soviet collaborator, not just related to a cocaine dealer (his brother Roger) but linked to the traffic of the drug — and a murder suspect as well. Even without today's World Wide Web, these tall tales were widely told and often believed — undermining Clinton's legitimacy years before his impeachment by Republicans in the House.
Beyond that, Clinton was pilloried for his policies on gays in the military, gun control, free trade and tax increases in his first budget. And then, in 1994, a broad array of conservatives and business interests lined up to smother his plan to overhaul the nation's health care system. It never even made it to a floor vote in either the House or the Senate.
The campaign of 1994 was said to have been about "God, guns and gays." And the key demographic mobilized for the GOP was called the "angry white male" — typically a blue-collar worker over 50.
If you've been anywhere near a TV in the past week, you have seen images of irate voters berating their elected representatives. And if so, you cannot have missed the strong representation of vociferous Caucasian males of a certain age. Theirs are not the only voices raised, but they are surely the loudest and most numerous.
Some Democrats believe the virulence of the protests will be distasteful enough to moderates and swing voters that it will help the president achieve his vision of health care change. Perhaps. But the first impulse of conservative opinion leaders has been to exult over the town hall phenomenon, and Republican leaders have followed in train.
For survivors of the GOP's 2008 debacle desperate for a comeback in 2010, Route '66 may look like the slow lane, while the high-octane rage of the angry white male makes Highway '94 look tempting indeed.