From Part One: The Republicans in RetreatThe Surrender of '98
Was it really a "revolution" in 1994 when Republicans gained control of Congress for the first time in forty years? It certainly was more than a mere changing of the guard, with one political party taking power from another. Rather, this was a conscious attempt to change the way America had been governed for the past sixty years and, indeed, the way Americans lived. And the Republican takeover did have revolutionary characteristics: a wave of excitement, a fervent belief and hope that the world will be transformed.
But the true test of a revolution is what happens after the revolutionaries storm the gates of the palace and seize power. Do they live up to their ideals, or do they succumb to the trappings of the old regime? Do they remain united, or do they form factions and turn their weapons on one another? And if the revolution collapses, does it go out with a bang or a whimper?
The "Gingrich revolution" has all too quickly reached that critical point where these questions must be answered. The revolutionary spirit of 1994, symbolized by the Contract with America, is but a faint memory as the Republicans face the 2000 election in danger of losing their third consecutive presidential election and of losing their majorities in Congress as well. If the Republicans are to regain the upper hand in politics and are to create a political environment in which their most cherished principles can flourish, the time to act is now.
For the past five years, I have waited for the Republican party to use its congressional majority to institute a true conservative program in line with the promises made in the election campaigns of 1994, 1996, and 1998. But time after time I have been disappointed. Some conservatives -- mostly at the grass-roots level but a few in positions of power -- have taken their disappointment so much to heart that they have begun talking about abandoning the GOP itself and starting a new political party. Others are following Pat Buchanan into the Reform Party to advocate protectionist and anti-immigration policies.
This surely is a road to oblivion. First, it is an admission of defeat, and I am not yet ready to concede the battle is lost. Second, it presumes that ideological purity is more important than electoral success, whereas I think that a strong Republican party that embraces conservatism can still command a majority in the country in a way that a third party never could. And third, it does not really address the overriding problem: It is impossible to govern the country effectively from Capitol Hill. To make a true mark on the country's political culture, a party has to control the White House, as the Republicans did from 1981 to 1993, under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush and as the Democrats have done under President Bill Clinton.
If the Republican party is to reach its potential as an engine of conservative reform, it must embrace its own principles -- despite the discomfort this may bring the congressional leadership -- and it needs to articulate a true vision for victory in 2000. Otherwise, conservatives should brace themselves for four more years of Democratic rule and significant changes in the way Americans live.
The Republican revolution truly ran out of steam in October 1998. In the first two weeks of that month, Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott decided to accept President Clinton's version of a catchall spending bill rather than risk a confrontation that might shut down the government just three weeks before the November midterm elections.
On the surface, it might seem that the president held the weaker cards. Facing the humiliation of impeachment proceedings in the House Judiciary Committee, Clinton did not command a majority in either house of Congress. Actually, Gingrich and Lott were the desperate ones.
The congressional leaders had one overarching desire: to adjourn the Congress as quickly as possible, so that the members could campaign for reelection and thereby stave off humiliating defeat at the polls. For the first time in the nation's history, it seemed possible that the party in control of the White House might regain control of at least one house of Congress from the opposition through a midterm election victory in the sixth year of a presidency.
These leaders remembered well the experience of the winter of 1995-1996, when the Republican Congress let the government be shut down, only to see the president turn this principled stand on its head, portraying the GOP as callous villains and creating a landmark political victory for himself. Three years later, the Republicans had yet to recover from this massive body blow and were skittish about provoking the president again.
And so, in the fall of 1998, with the president riding high in the public opinion polls, Gingrich and Lott chose surrender over principle. During the course of the congressional session, the two leaders made no effort to pass individual appropriations bills (any of which might have been vetoed by the president), choosing instead to pack everything into a single 3,000-page omnibus bill, in the hope that they could sneak all of their spending provisions past the president. They refused to recognize that Clinton would not hesitate to wield his veto pen. When the president challenged them point-blank in October, the specter of a government shutdown was too much for them.
Rather than force the point, they backed down. First went any hope of tax cuts. Then Congress agreed to spend $29 billion out of the first budget surplus in a generation to cover "emergency" spending, which in reality covered spending that was anticipated far in advance (for the military occupation of Bosnia) and was required by statute (mandatory veterans' benefits). Clinton got much of the funding he wanted for additional school spending, while the Republicans dropped their call to permit people to use tax-free savings for private and parochial schools below the college level.
Even worse, tucked away in those 3,000 pages were hidden goodies, intended to help the president and his party in the election only three weeks away. Seeking to firm up Democratic support against impeachment in the House, Clinton made sure that any compromise budget would appeal to his minority and feminist constituencies. Black farmers were subsidized for their anti-discrimination lawsuits against the Agriculture Department. A contraceptive program for health insurance companies contained no "conscience clause" for doctors who opposed abortion. Worst of all, these clauses were included without a peep of protest from Gingrich or Lott.
Indeed, the two congressional leaders were not even permitted the dignity of negotiating directly with the president. While Bill Clinton spent September and early October helping to raise money for Democratic congressional candidates, he delegated four senior staffers to deal with the Speaker of the House and the Senate majority leader. "I don't think the president is anxious to see the Republicans after all they've said about him," said one Clinton adviser. Although Gingrich and Lott fumed over this flagrant show of disrespect, it didn't seem to have stiffened their spines. The president knew that they would do anything to get out of town. And they did.
The capitulation of the Republican congressional leadership did not go unnoticed by others in the party. Jack Kemp, the former congressman, cabinet secretary, and vice-presidential candidate, had grown increasingly critical of the leadership shown by his friend and ally, Newt Gingrich. On October 8, on the eve of the budget surrender, Kemp issued an extraordinarily harsh statement about the congressional leadership, most of them his longtime political allies and former colleagues. "Today, the Republican Party is adrift," he wrote, "without an agenda and without purpose beyond its seeming preoccupation with saving the Congressional seats of its incumbents."
Kemp was particularly critical of the failure of the Republican Congress to deal with the high level of taxation. Twenty years earlier, when he was in Congress, Kemp had been a lone voice calling for tax relief, and it was his Kemp-Roth tax bill that had formed the basis of Ronald Reagan's massive tax cuts in 1981. Kemp noted acidly in his statement that although Republican candidates across the country were campaigning for tax cuts, the leadership on Capitol Hill had not even tried to pass tax cut legislation, and he warned that "voters may think a political party whose leaders are unwilling to risk losing a vote on principle once it is in office is unworthy of winning the next election."
This was a view shared by many of Gingrich's colleagues in Congress and especially by the Republican rank and file beyond the Capital Beltway. Robert Bennett, the veteran Republican state chairman of Ohio, was a professional party man who was not especially ideological and was loath to criticize the elected leadership of his party. But two weeks before the November 3 election, he was blunt. He told me: "The Republican leadership in Washington for the last two weeks has not been helpful to Republicans campaigning in the hinterlands. We badly need tax cuts on the table."
In private, Bennett and his fellow state Republican leaders were even more scathing about the party's leaders on Capitol Hill. Some even speculated darkly that the Speaker of the House might not keep his lofty office for a third term after this election. It was a far cry from the heady days of 1994 when Newt Gingrich was the visionary leader who had generated a political earthquake. And as the year 2000 and the next presidential election loomed, Republicans around the country began to wonder what was to be the fate of the Grand Old Party.
From the Civil War to the Jazz Age, the Republican party was the dominant force in American politics. Republican candidates won fourteen of the eighteen presidential elections from 1860 to 1928, and the Republicans controlled at least one house of Congress for sixty of the seventy years from 1861 to 1931. The long Republican hegemony ended with the Great Depression, as the Democrats won control of the House in the 1930 election and two years later took over the Senate and the presidency under Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal.
Not until 1946 did the Republicans regain their congressional majorities, and then they were able to hold them for only two years. General Dwight D. Eisenhower's landslide victory for president in 1952 carried with it a Republican Congress, but it too lasted only two years. Despite Republican presidential victories in 1956, 1968, 1972, 1980, 1984, and 1988, Democrats still controlled Congress -- forty uninterrupted years of House majorities and thirty-four years of Senate majorities, broken only by the Republican Senate of 1981-1987. After the Democratic landslide in the recession year of 1958, the Republicans most often were a puny, and increasingly ineffective, minority.
The Democratic ascendancy on Capitol Hill meant more and bigger government: higher taxes, tighter regulation, increased spending. President Ronald Reagan proclaimed a "revolution" in 1980, but even he could not reverse the trend toward big government, while reducing marginal tax rates. And when Bill Clinton defeated George Bush in 1992 and took office with solid Democratic majorities in both the House and the Senate, it appeared that the GOP had been brought to its knees.
But in the flush of victory, Clinton committed a series of costly mistakes. Elected with a plurality but not a majority of the popular vote, he felt he needed to shore up his base among the liberal Democrats -- and failed to recognize how such measures might cost him support among voters in the center. To satisfy a key Democratic constituency, he made his first policy initiative to open the armed services to homosexuals. This served to strain relations not only with the military brass but also with large segments of the electorate. Then he put his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, in charge of devising a big-government plan to overhaul the national health care system. It was too much for the American people to swallow, and by the autumn of 1994, health care was a dead issue.
Unbowed by defeat, Clinton's chief political strategists were determined to make that year's congressional election a national referendum on health care. "We'll just beat the Republicans like a piece of bad meat," promised Clinton political adviser Paul Begala, invoking the vernacular of his native Texas. In most years, congresssional elections tend to be fought out over local issues, not national ones, but the administration was determined to nationalize and coordinate the Democratic effort.
The election of 1994 was indeed nationalized, but in ways the White House never envisioned, thanks mainly to perhaps the most mercurial of national political leaders, Newt Gingrich. An eight-term congressman from the suburbs of Atlanta, Gingrich had been an undistinguished history professor at Georgia State University before his election to the House in 1978. He had run twice previously, in 1974 and 1976, on a moderately liberal Republican platform emphasizing civil rights and environmental issues. It was only after moving to the right in 1978 that he turned the corner, and he entered the House as a firebrand, chafing at the passivity of his party's leadership.
By the time of Gingrich's election, the Republicans had been in the minority for a quarter of a century, and their leader, John J. Rhodes of Arizona, was nonconfrontational toward the Democratic majority. In 1981, Rhodes retired and was succeeded by Robert H. Michel of Illinois, who if anything was even more deferential to the opposition. Like most of their GOP colleagues, they represented safe Republican districts and seemed perfectly content with Democratic rule in Congress. Michel was a frequent golf partner of Democratic Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill, and after he left Congress, he often mourned the loss of bipartisan bonhomie. (When Michel faced an unusually strong labor-Democratic threat in his Peoria, Illinois, district in 1982, O'Neill privately expressed concern over the possibility that his good friend Bob might be defeated.)
From his first day in Congress, Gingrich railed against the Rhodes-Michel mentality and sought to lay the groundwork for a Republican majority. If he had to make Capitol Hill a less friendly place, so be it. Gingrich saw his opportunity in 1989, when he charged Democratic Speaker Jim Wright with corruption in connection with a questionable book deal. In lieu of paying an honorarium for speaking engagements, the Teamsters union, an oil lobbyist, a Fort Worth land developer, a liberal Texas insurance entrepreneur, and a Boston-based insurance company purchased, by the thousands, bulk copies of Wright's 117-page paperback, Reflections of a Public Man
(a collection of his speeches and anecdotes assembled by a congressional aide on the public payroll). The Speaker received royalties far above the usual scale, in effect, laundering money though his royalty account. At first standing almost alone against the House's ethos of collegiality, Gingrich forced Wright from office in 1989 and in the process harvested poisonous resentment toward him from the Democratic side of the aisle.
To the astonishment of even his own friends, later that year Gingrich was elected -- by a single vote and against Bob Michel's opposition -- to replace Dick Cheney as House Republican whip, the second-ranking position in the party leadership. Cheney, a conservative and former chief of staff to President Gerald Ford who was well liked and respected on both sides of the aisle, had resigned to become secretary of defense under President George Bush. Gingrich could not have been more different from Cheney in his approach to the job. He did not care whether the Democrats liked him; he was a partisan warrior who sought the ultimate goal of a Republican takeover of power -- under his leadership.
In 1994 his moment came. Gingrich made clear that whatever the outcome of that year's congressional elections, he would challenge Bob Michel for the House Republican leadership. At age seventy-one, Michel had no stomach for a bitter intraparty battle and announced that he would retire at the end of the congressional session. There was no opponent against Gingrich to succeed Michel.
In preparing for the fall election campaign, Gingrich launched an audacious venture: a "Contract with America," pledging a vote within the first hundred days of the new Congress in 1995 on ten issues, including tax cuts, welfare reform, regulatory and tort reform, anti-crime measures, the line-item veto, term limits, and a balanced budget. The Contract with America provided a framework for Republican unity in a nonpresidential election year, especially after more than three hundred Republican congressional candidates gathered on the steps of the Capitol on September 27, 1994, to sign the document and pledge to uphold its provisions if elected.
"This year's election offers the chance," the preamble stated, "to bring the House a new majority that will transform the way Congress works. That historic change would end government that is too big, too intrusive, and too easy with the public's money. It can be the beginning of a Congress that respects the values and shares the faith of the American family." United by the Contract, appealing to a growing anti-Clinton reaction in the country that had mobilized Christian conservatives, gun owners, and term-limits advocates, the GOP picked up an astonishing gain of fifty-four seats in the House and nine in the Senate. Newt Gingrich, improbably, was Speaker of the House, the third-ranking official in the U.S. government.
As 1995 began, the optimism within the GOP ranks was infectious, but disillusionment with Gingrich soon set in, as the indefatigable opposition leader and far-seeing visionary turned out to be an ineffective, mistake-prone leader of the congressional majority. His first mistake was to sign a $4.5 million book contract with HarperCollins, prompting speculation that Gingrich was trying to enrich himself at the public's expense and that he was now beholden to media tycoon Rupert Murdoch, the owner of HarperCollins. Although Gingrich restructured the contract so that he received only standard royalties and no advance, the controversy emboldened the Democrats and the press. It was a turning point, and by midyear the Republican revolution was stalled.
The conventional wisdom of why the soaring hopes of the 104th Congress crashed is that the Republicans underestimated the tactics and toughness of Bill Clinton, particularly in the government shutdown at the end of 1995. Clinton twice vetoed Republican bills, forcing the offices of the government to be closed and "nonessential" employees to be sent home. The new House majority whip, Tom DeLay, wanted the Republicans to outwait Clinton, but Gingrich could not withstand the abuse the Republicans were getting in the news media. Clinton put the blame on Congress, and Congress capitulated and made a budget deal on the president's terms. The Republicans never recovered from that retreat.
The Republicans had been so sure of victory that they had no contingency plans for defeat. "We were committed to the idea of Clinton as a weak president who would ultimately feel required to sign an agreement with us for a balanced budget with tax cuts," Gingrich later admitted. When Clinton didn't turn out to be so weak, the Republicans found themselves out on a limb with no way to climb back.
All that was true, but much more was involved as well. For all of the Republican esprit de corps during the first hundred days in 1995, there was a tension from the start within the Republican ranks. The bright-eyed amateurs elected in the GOP sweep of 1994 sincerely wanted to change the way business was done on Capitol Hill. But the old hands in Congress (particularly in the House), who had waited so long to taste the fruits of victory, were not about to dismantle the system that the Democrats had enjoyed for forty years. The metaphor I like to use is whether the Republicans would close down the executive washroom or merely change the locks. They opted to change the locks.
One early test of principle involved a mundane congressional perquisite. At overcrowded Washington National Airport (hopelessly obsolete before its remodeling in 1998), parking spaces were at a premium. During rush hours, the regular parking lots and a single parking garage were always filled. But next to the main terminal was a large lot that was never more than half-filled and often was three-quarters empty. Its sign explained why: "RESERVED FOR MEMBERS OF CONGRESS, SUPREME COURT JUSTICES, AND DIPLOMATS." The Supreme Court and diplomatic listings were window dressing. This was a parking lot for congressmen, and it meant a lot to them as they hurried to make their weekend flights home.
Why, it was asked, should these elected representatives of the people be entitled to this special privilege? Many of the newly elected freshmen of the class of '94 asked that question, and so did a very small number of their more senior colleagues. But the Republican leaders laughed off the question. Only the sign was changed. The new sign read simply: "RESERVED."
That symbolized the determination by the Republican leadership to run Congress very much as the Democrats had. Above all, they were not going to make a great effort to enact campaign finance reforms that would curtail the flood of lobbyist contributions. And as long as the lobbyists could contribute large sums of money to congressional campaigns, there wouldn't be any meaningful tax reform either.
The most important betrayal of principle by the Republicans in Congress was their deception on term limits. The party had gladly accepted the contributions and the votes of the term-limits movement in 1994, but actually liked the idea no better than the Democrats did. Indeed, the tip-off came even before the 104th Congress convened, when the new House majority leader, Dick Armey, mused that the Republican takeover had rendered term limits unnecessary. The Old Bulls of the House GOP were professional politicians who had no desire to give up their seats after a few terms, and with surprising speed, many of the freshman Republicans lost the stars in their eyes too. Membership in Congress was too enjoyable and too rewarding to be sacrificed. It was not surprising, then, that the only item from the Contract with America to fail on the House floor was the proposed term-limits legislation.
While some members of the class of '94, like Thomas Coburn of Oklahoma, Matt Salmon of Arizona, and Helen Chenoweth of Idaho, sincerely believe in term limits and will retire from Congress after the 2000 election (much to the consternation of the Republican leadership), others have been less principled.
The poster child for term-limits hypocrisy in 2000 is George Nethercutt of Spokane, Washington, who in 1994 defeated the sitting Speaker of the House, Thomas S. Foley, primarily on the term-limits issue. Nethercutt's pledge to serve no more than three terms was a marked contrast to Foley's thirty-year tenure in the House and to the Speaker's unpopular lawsuit in which he had sued the people of the state of Washington for approving term limits in a referendum.
But Nethercutt was at heart a creature of Washington, D.C., rather than the state of Washington. He was a lawyer who had long labored in the nation's capital as a congressional aide, and it soon became clear that he was not going to honor his term-limits pledge. In 1999, he announced that he would run for a fourth term in 2000, prompting the organization U.S. Term Limits to mount a vigorous advertising campaign against him in Spokane.
House roll calls told the larger story. Tom Coburn and the other House members who adhered to their term-limits promises were dependable votes for smaller government and lower taxes. The George Nethercutts of the GOP were markedly less dependable.
By all historical precedents, the Republicans should have lost their congressional majority in 1996, repeating the party's history of controlling Congress for only two years at a time, as was the case in 1947-1948 and 1953-1954. Bill Clinton was racing to an easy victory over Bob Dole in the presidential race, and the momentum was clearly with the Democrats.
What intervened was the late-breaking scandal that the Democrats had raised millions of dollars through illicit campaign contributions from Asia. The scandal was enough to slice into Clinton's margin of victory and to salvage the Republican majority in the House -- but just barely. The GOP majority fell from fifteen to nine seats.
The 105th Congress convened in a far different mood from its predecessor. The freshmen from the class of '94 who had entered Congress as starry-eyed members of Newt's army were now cynical sophomores who blamed the Speaker for the party's loss of momentum. Gingrich's position was made even shakier by the fact that he was under an ethical cloud on a variety of dubious charges that he had converted public funds for personal use, charges lodged by Democrats who had never forgiven him for forcing Jim Wright from public life and were thirsting for retribution. No charge was proved, and years later the Internal Revenue Service, very quietly, cleared him of tax-evasion charges. He did sign an incorrect disclosure statement prepared by his lawyer and agreed to pay a $300,000 fine and to apologize to the full House in the opening days of the session in January 1997. He won reelection to a second term as Speaker by the narrowest of margins, with nine Republicans joining Democrats in voting against him.
By the late spring of 1997, Gingrich's hand-picked leadership team, headed by Majority Leader Armey, was in rebellion. These rebels included the party's brightest rising light, forty-three-year-old Representative Bill Paxon of Buffalo, New York. A Gingrich protégé, Paxon had headed the Republican congressional campaign committee's masterful operations in 1994 and had been appointed by the Speaker to a new post, chairman of the leadership. Paxon soon became a favorite of the freshmen; he was conservative though not confrontational, a skilled politician though still an idealist.
In early July, a band of insurgents, mostly from the class of '94 but including some more senior members as well, determined that Gingrich had to go. Majority Whip Tom DeLay met with the rebels and then with Armey, Paxon, and John Boehner, the chairman of the House Republican Conference (who ranked fourth in the party's House hierarchy, behind Gingrich, Armey, and DeLay). The leaders agreed that Armey would replace Gingrich as Speaker and that Paxon would be the new majority leader.
But when DeLay reported back to the other conspirators, he met unexpected resistance. Tom Coburn asserted that the backbenchers' choice as Speaker was not Armey but Paxon. DeLay was stunned. He left the room and informed his fellow leaders of Coburn's remarks, which effectively drove Armey to the other side and ended the coup attempt. A few days later, Armey told his colleagues that it would be "immoral" to move against Gingrich, and he proceeded to warn the Speaker of the threat to his leadership.
That was the end of the coup, but not of the disruption. Paxon admitted his complicity and resigned from the leadership, after being told that that was Gingrich's wish. DeLay made a similar admission but stayed in the leadership. Armey denied everything, and Boehner said nothing (guaranteeing that efforts would be made to dislodge both of them from their positions in the next session of Congress -- unsuccessfully against Armey, successfully against Boehner).
Gingrich was safe for now, but Republican wounds had been opened. And when the second session of the 105th Congress began in January 1998, the Speaker was no longer his fiery self.
Survival was now his keyword. To avoid the confrontations of the past, Gingrich was determined only to suffocate President Clinton's legislation. He was confident that even if the Congress accomplished nothing positive, the Republicans would nonetheless be saved by the historical precedent of the "six-year itch," whereby the president's party always lost seats in Congress, usually a lot of them, after six years in office. Gingrich resolved to do absolutely nothing as he waited for the November election, while attacking Clinton over the burgeoning scandal over the president's affair with a young White House intern named Monica Lewinsky.
But despite Gingrich's plan, it is an iron law of politics that Congress must do something, and in 1998 that something turned out to be a lot more spending. With the concurrence of the Republican leadership, an immense highway bill was passed, despite the protests and opposition of young insurgents like Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and veteran legislators like John Kasich of Ohio, the chairman of the House Budget Committee.
By the time the session ended with the Surrender of '98, the radicals were bitter and laid down the law. If the Republicans failed to gain at least ten House seats in the midterm elections, they said, Gingrich was in trouble. And if the unimaginable happened and the Republicans actually lost seats in the face of the six-year itch, Gingrich was finished. The Speaker was untroubled. After all, his advisers had told him that with Clinton on the road to impeachment, a gain of twenty seats was not just possible but likely. November 3 couldn't come soon enough for him.
It was a paradox. William Jefferson Clinton was about to be impeached, but he achieved what no other president had accomplished since 1822 (when President James Monroe's Era of Good Feelings constituted virtual one-party rule): his party actually gained seats in the House of Representatives after six years in office. When the new 106th Congress would convene in January 1999, the Republican majority would be trimmed to a razor-thin five seats. The diagnosis of the debacle was universally accepted. There had been no Republican agenda in the 105th Congress, and Newt Gingrich was to blame.
The end came swiftly. Representative Robert L. Livingston of Louisiana, whom Gingrich had promoted in 1995 over three more senior members to become chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, showed his gratitude by announcing his candidacy for Speaker. Livingston represented a departure, but it was questionable whether he was pointed in the right direction. He was certainly no ideologue, and he was even less an aggressive champion of the private sector than Gingrich. For the previous four years, he had been primarily devoted to preserving the interests of the "appropriators," those congressmen in charge of spending the public's money. But the backbench rebels supported him anyway, for one very important reason: he was not Gingrich. Bill Paxon had had not sought reelection in 1998 and retired from politics at the early age of forty-four. Livingston was all the rebels had.
Livingston did not have the votes to defeat Gingrich in the Republican conference, but the unique nature of the speakership proved Gingrich's downfall. Unlike the majority leader and the whip, the Speaker is elected by the full House, not just by his party, and there were enough Republican dissidents who said they would join with the Democrats to deny Gingrich the majority he would need to remain as Speaker. To be sure, intense pressure would be placed on those dissenters to support Gingrich in the House election, but such a process would be ugly, dispiriting, and ruinous for the Republican future. And so Gingrich did the right thing. Before the week was out, he resigned from Congress, leaving Livingston an open path.
The path, however, did not remain open for long. Larry Flynt, the publisher of the pornographic magazine Hustler,
revealed the existence of adulterous affairs in Livingston's past, and Livingston stunned the House during a Saturday morning debate on Clinton's impeachment by announcing his resignation from Congress. By midafternoon, the Republicans had lined up behind a new heir apparent: J. Dennis Hastert of Illinois, a former high school wrestling coach who had served unobtrusively in the House for six terms and had never held elective leadership office. He was currently serving as chief deputy whip, the principal lieutenant of Tom DeLay (who played a major role in easing Livingston out and Hastert in), and had made many friends and no enemies within the party. He was hailed as a competent, nonabrasive legislative mechanic.
Denny Hastert, the unexpected Speaker, came into office pledging to make the trains run on time. And that posed a major conflict going into the 2000 election. Apart from the unfortunate reference to Benito Mussolini, whose early apologists asserted that at least the Italian Fascist dictator made the trains run on time, the desire to adhere to a tight legislative schedule was bred in the Republicans' fear of failure deriving from the shutdown of '95.
Compromises on spending and other issues quickly became apparent as the Hastert era began. Except for a serious effort to cut taxes in the summer of 1999 (though the tax-cutting bill, vetoed by Clinton, was seriously flawed), there was not much more of an agenda than there had been in the preceding three years under Gingrich. Significantly, most appropriations bills continued to be crafted to bring bipartisan agreement and thereby avoid a session-end logjam. Obscured by Democratic complaints of draconian spending cuts, spending continued to rise inexorably.
Actually the train schedule was a little chaotic. In an effort to get the spending bills passed on time, the Republican leadership was keeping the House in session late into the evening -- past ten o'clock, eleven o'clock, or even midnight. At the end of July when routinely asking Majority Leader Armey in a colloquy on the House floor for the next week's schedule, Democratic Caucus chairman Martin Frost asked if it might be possible to require a curfew similar to the restriction that Philadelphia and other cities once imposed on baseball teams that no inning could start after 11 p.m. Armey was not amused. In midsummer 1999, a resentful Bob Livingston was telling former colleagues that if he were Speaker, the House would be quitting at a decent hour each night.
As the 1999 congressional session progressed, it seemed that the agenda was being set more by the minority Democrats than by the majority Republicans. After two students at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, shot to death thirteen of their fellow students and then killed themselves, the Democrats demanded new gun control legislation. There were no convincing arguments that the proposed new regulations -- safety locks or restrictions on sales at gun shows -- could have prevented the Littleton tragedy. Indeed, some twenty existing gun laws had been broken by the high school killers. Nevertheless, polls showed a public demand, echoed by individual Columbine students, to prevent future carnage.
So when Senator Edward M. Kennedy requested a full-scale debate on gun controls, Majority Leader Lott agreed. That triggered a sequence of events leading to the passage of an unexpectedly restrictive gun control measure (with Vice President Al Gore, the probable Democratic presidential for 2000, casting the vote as president of the Senate to break a tie). A bipartisan coalition in the House later blocked the panicky ride to passage, but the Senate proceedings showed Republican leaders unable to keep their rank and file loyal to the gun owners, a major element in the coalition, and ineffective in controlling the flow of what was happening on the Senate floor. It was a familiar story of GOP fecklessness over the past five years.
The combination of Democratic determination also forced action on reform of health maintenance organizations and campaign finance, with Republican leaders kicking and screaming rather than shaping the issues to their liking. Except for the sole issue of tax reduction, the Republican leaders were trying to run out the clock in 1999, for surely nothing would be accomplished in the election year of 2000.
The great Republican accomplishment of 1999 was the passage in late July of a large, but flawed, tax cut bill. Yet instead of following normal procedure and sending the bill immediately to President Clinton, who was expected to veto it, Republican leaders held it back as Congress adjourned for the month of August. Seeking to keep Clinton from trashing the bill while Republican members of Congress were scattered around the globe during the recess, the GOP leadership planned to sing the praises of their bill across the nation. By the time the lawmakers reconvened on September 8, they calculated, Clinton might feel constrained to sign the bill or at least negotiate a compromise.
It didn't work out that way. Some Republicans tried to promote the tax bill to their constituents (especially Speaker Hastert), but many others were abroad on junkets or resting at home. Polls showed that Americans, enjoying a prosperous economy, gave tax-cutting a low priority (though many other surveys showed that voters, logically enough, would welcome lower taxes). When the lawmakers returned after Labor Day, the Democrats eagerly awaited the battle while the Republicans seemed timid and uncertain.
On September 8, Senate Majority Leader Lott abruptly and surprisingly announced that there would be no attempt to resurrect the tax bill once Clinton vetoed it. Nobody was more surprised than Speaker Hastert, who had contemplated a post-veto revival with a compromise bill that would join a major package of tax cuts with a Clinton-sponsored minimum wage increase. But Lott and Hastert had not conferred during the long summer recess and had not bothered to schedule a meeting for their first week back in Washington. Rather than protest and trigger news stories of internal Republican dissension, the Speaker yielded.
The stunning absence of a Lott-Hastert meeting also meant the absence of a session-ending budget strategy, as Republicans lurched toward possible repetition of the surrender of 1998. Unwilling to risk another government shutdown, the congressional leadership could avoid another catchall omnibus bill only by meeting the president's spending demands on individual bills.
The attention of the congressional leaders, like that of Republicans elsewhere, was not on the forlorn hopes of crafting a real agenda on Capitol Hill but on George Walker Bush, the governor of Texas. All hopes were pinned on a rookie in national politics, anointed by the party establishment as its choice long before the first primary was even near. The confirmation of that anointment was Bush's phenomenal money raising. By mid-July 1999, he had collected a record $38 million in individual, $1,000-a-crack contributions. By October the figure was an astounding $60 million, with much more to come.
Bush had the endorsements and the money, was likable and attractive, and had run very well in Texas with minority groups and women, who had hurt Republicans badly in the previous two elections. But could the son of President George Bush be counted on to carry out the party's revolutionary impulses, or would he follow his father in disastrous compromises?
Whatever the answer to that question, the early anointment rankled conservative Republicans also seeking the presidential nomination. Senator Bob Smith of New Hampshire dropped his presidential bid and left the party. Much more menacing to Republican prospects, Patrick J. Buchanan prepared to bolt and run as a third-party candidate. But beyond disgruntled also-rans, many Republicans wondered whether the party elders were wise in putting all their money on an untried candidate whose position on the Republican agenda was uncertain.
What agenda? Going into the 2000 presidential election, this is the state of the Republican agenda as crafted on Capitol Hill:
- No consensus and no real action on tax reform
- Tax reduction scaled down with only a small portion of the projected budget surplus dedicated to lower taxes and legislation cluttered with special interest plums
- Dismantling of government agencies set aside
- Acceptance of the federal government's current scope and power
- Abandonment of the term-limits cause
- The movement against abortion and racial quotas set aside
- A leading federal role in education and health care accepted
- An uncertain trumpet on foreign affairs and defense
This looks suspiciously like the me-too Republicanism of the post-World War II generation -- the Eisenhower administration's "dime-store New Deal," in Barry Goldwater's memorable description. It was a failure the first time around, starting when Republican presidential nominee Thomas E. Dewey walked away from the major accomplishments of the Republican 80th Congress on his way to an unexpected defeat in 1948. The subsequent election triumphs of Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon continued the watered-down, copy-cat facsimiles of Democratic policies that served mainly to suppress the growth of the Republican party.
The congressional wing of the party for the most part has admitted that only the election of a Republican president in 2000 can advance a more imaginative agenda. (In October 1999, they held their tongues while Bush consciously separated himself from the unpopular Capitol Hill GOP.) They are content to sit on the sidelines until such a president is elected. The stakes could not be higher, yet the foundation is shaky as the fate of the revolution awaits the election of 2000.
Copyright © 2000 by Robert D. Novak