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The Get Real Congress

Monday, September 1, 1997

Those who would blame conservative disappointments in Congress solely on a Republican failure of nerve are missing some pieces of the puzzle.

From the height of Republican ascendancy two years ago, how could things have fallen so far so fast? Conservative observers love to catalogue the horrors of the 105th Congress. Start with the personalities: A House Speaker, Newt Gingrich, who seems to have lost the ability to articulate a conservative agenda, the respect of congressional Republicans, and the interest of the American people; the Speaker's backstabbing subalterns in the House, who have begun maneuvering to succeed him; a new Senate leader, Trent Lott, whose conservatism may prove to be as much a matter of tactics as principles.

Then there are the issues: The Balanced Budget Amendment fails in the Senate yet again; the conservative agenda on such issues as racial preferences lies moribund; a bill to provide disaster relief for flood victims brings political disaster upon Republicans; and, of course, President Clinton and congressional leaders strike a balanced-budget deal that most conservatives regard as, at best, a huge disappointment.

Lastly, look at the themes, the inspiring articulation of the principles that separate liberal from conservative, rally the troops, and frighten the enemy: There are none. The man Gingrich brought in as communications guru for the 105th Congress was gone five months after he arrived.

Now, compare this record of nonachievement with the first nine months of the 104th Congress. Conservatism was triumphant. It had a face, the face of Newt Gingrich, and that face and those of his surrogates appeared on public-affairs programs every day to explain the intellectual and political bankruptcy of liberalism and the principles of the conservative and Republican "revolution." Under their new majority leader, Dick Armey, House Republicans united to pass their "Contract with America" legislation with disciplined energy, speed, and authority. Outside groups were energized, eager to bring their resources in the service of the revolution. It was the moment for conservative ideology to step out of the think tanks and into its governing stance, by means of the GOP congressional majority.

Moreover, in 1995, the Democrats were foundering. The president was reduced to insisting on his own relevance. Congressional Democrats spun furiously--and erroneously. Republicans never believed their own promises and couldn't possibly make good on them, they said, even as House Republicans were proving the opposite. Democrats, in short, were still in denial.

A scant two years later, the popularity of the newly re-elected Democratic president has reached its highest level ever. Hill Democrats are busy preparing an entirely new federal entitlement for children's health insurance--and doing so in the certain expectation that they will attract more than enough Republican votes to pass it.

Democrats have their own worries, of course: illicit fundraising, independent counsels, and Dick Gephardt, the House Minority Leader who broke with the White House over the budget deal. It could hardly be said that for Democrats, everything is hunky-dory. But it would take willful blindness not to see how partisan fortunes have reversed in two years.

Conservatives outside the provinces of Capitol Hill are saying that self-styled reformers are inevitably co-opted after they settle in Washington, and that only the naive would suppose one's own reformers are different. These so-called movement conservatives have distanced themselves from the political leaders they embraced and supported only two years ago. They vow to put their trust, not in princes, but in principles, the principles that GOP congressional leadership espouse in theory and betray in practice. The movement conservatives are left to hope that those who have abandoned their principles will rediscover them--a rare thing--or that a new generation of principled leaders will emerge who are capable of sticking it out and fighting the good fight to the end.

In fact, the question isn't whether one should have principles; of course one should. The question is whether the movement conservatives' assessment of GOP problems on Capitol Hill is correct. I think there is some reason for pause. Those who would blame conservative disappointments solely on a failure of nerve on the part of the congressional GOP are, I think, missing some important pieces of the puzzle. Here are a few:

The Numbers Game

The current Republican majority in the House is much smaller than that of the 104th Congress. It is also the smallest majority in the House since 1955. Unlike the Senate, the House is a body in which the majority rules more or less absolutely. But that can be any majority, not just the one nominally in charge. It is quite possible for a majority party to lose control to some coalition of the minority party and defectors from its own.

During the 104th Congress, Republicans numbered as many as 236. That's 18 more than the 218 members needed to control the chamber. As it happens, 236 is not a particularly large majority, historically speaking. But in the 105th Congress, Republicans have had no more than 228, or a 10-seat majority. In practical terms, this difference is huge.

The conflicting ideological factions within the GOP seem to be conspiring to produce the worst of all outcomes for the party.

Dick Armey's task as majority leader is to run the House's day-to-day operations. Now he must do so knowing that any 11 members of the Republican conference can team up and stick it to him. All they have to do is vote with the Democrats on a matter of procedure. The leadership was not immune from legislative rebellion in the 104th Congress. But it is exponentially more difficult to organize a cabal of 19 than a cabal of 11. And from Armey's point of view, an imminent explosion may be undetectable until it's time to try to put the pieces back together.

The Republican majority in the 105th Congress is thus much more vulnerable to pressure from its own ideological poles. Mainstream opinion among House Republicans is fairly conservative--not all that different from that of movement conservatives. But the GOP conference includes at least a dozen moderate-to-liberal members who are generally dissatisfied with the mainstream conservative Republican agenda. Another 20 or so members might join them on one issue or another. Movement conservatives have always decried these Republican "squishes." But their potential influence on legislation has grown tremendously since the 104th Congress--when their performance was already a frequent object of conservative ire.

It's not just the moderate wing that gets to play the game, however. Serious dissent is also emerging on the right. Certainly, some Republicans in the 104th Congress even regarded the Contract With America as too timid. A per-child tax credit? A sop to the Christian Coalition. Where was the broad-based reduction in tax rates Republicans really believed in? But the Contract was written to articulate what would be politically achievable by a Republican majority that did not even exist when the Contract was written. The first test of achievability was the creation of an agenda on which almost all current and aspiring GOP members could agree. The conservative conference members were fully on board.

The same cannot be said of conservatives in relation to the agenda of the 105th Congress. Consider the budget deal. Chris Cox, a staunch conservative and a member of the leadership, voted against it. Dick Armey himself was conspicuously absent--he said he was at home hanging shutters--when Gingrich and Lott and most of the rest of the leadership unveiled it to great fanfare. Armey continued to convey support without enthusiasm, and his office became a repository for complaints about Gingrich's leadership, leading to the failed coup attempt against the speaker in July.

The conservative opposition to the budget deal in the House of Representatives has not risen to the level of crisis. But on other occasions, the butting ideological factions within the GOP seemed to be conspiring to produce the worst of all possible outcomes for the party. Take the disaster-relief bill, for example. Conservative members wanted President Clinton to assent to at least some GOP priorities. So the party attached riders that Clinton opposed, hoping the pressure to aid flood victims would induce him to make concessions. Although the moderate-to-liberal wing of the party would have preferred a "clean" bill, it didn't have the strength to thwart the conservatives.

In the event, Clinton's political calculation was the more astute. He vetoed the measure and sat tight, denouncing the GOP for letting partisan politics get in the way of helping suffering people. Suddenly, the liberal-moderate opposition crystallized, and the conservative bloc couldn't prevent an unceremonious retreat. Arguably, if the GOP had employed its strategy with conviction, Clinton would have had to go along with something. But he recognized that the GOP's internal dynamics made compromise unnecessary.


The Lost Mandate

Within conservative circles, it's an article of faith that, while Bob Dole and Jack Kemp at the top of the ticket lost in 1996, Republicans nevertheless won by holding onto the House and even picking up two seats in the Senate. In fact, Republicans lost the 1996 election.

Unquestionably, the Senate constitutes a win, but not the House. Perhaps, if Republicans had picked up a few House seats, or just broken even, as those chirpy folks at the National Republican Congressional Committee kept predicting, the GOP could have claimed a victory. But their numbers decreased; this fact has left some of the members who survived feeling mighty nervous.

First, look at the geographical pattern. In 1994, Republicans continued the surge in the South and the West that had been evident in recent elections. The once solidly Democratic South was turning solidly Republican. But 1994's gains were not confined to these areas. Republicans picked up seats across the landscape.

Now one might expect the waters from the 1994 tidal wave to recede a bit, if only (in the optimistic scenario) to make way for the next wave. In 1996, however, the waters did not recede uniformly. Republicans continued to make gains in their stronghold areas. But they lost more than 20 seats in what I call the "Broken Arc" of states running from the West Coast across the northern plains (except for Idaho), into the upper Midwest, up through the Northeast, and down to the mid-Atlantic states.

Gingrich himself has acknowledged that the Republican Party has a problem in the Broken Arc, which he analogizes to the nations of Northern Europe, where the welfare state has deep roots and many self-interested defenders. He has said that Republicans will need to better craft their conservative message so that it appeals to voters in these regions.

That is surely true. But it is not merely habit and vested interest that make some voters in these areas leery of conservative proposals. It is also genuine support for many of the programs targeted even by the mainstream Republican agenda, let alone the hard-line one. To be sure, Democrats have been shameless in their starving-baby-and-homeless-grandma caricature of the Republican agenda.

On the other hand, no one really thinks that Republicans are out to expand Medicare and Medicaid and other programs dear to defenders of the welfare state. Many of the most vulnerable GOP incumbents know this is not just a communications problem, and so hope to attenuate the GOP's conservative agenda. This moderating force, which was barely present in the 104th Congress, has already manifested itself in the factionalism of the 105th.

Many movement conservatives regard this as cowardice pure and simple, the usual political evolution from conservative to squish. They also argue that politically, one is better off sticking to principle. It remains to be seen whether those who have become more moderate have thereby improved their electoral prospects. Nor is it clear what a Broken Arc Republicanism will look like--at least not until the elections of 1998. In the meantime, though, these newfound electoral fears constitute serious pressure on the GOP conference.

Meanwhile, the defenders of the welfare state are gathering for another assault. In 1996, the AFL-CIO and the Democratic party spent millions of dollars on "Mediscare" attack ads. Had Republicans held on to all their House seats, the trade unions might have reason to be demoralized. Instead, any rational Democratic political operative knows that these tactics got them halfway back to control in 1996. And the emergence of the GOP's regional weakness is there for all to see. Thus it is time for the Democrats to redouble their attacks, not give them up.


A Bumpy Adjustment

Conservative Republican ideology is still making the bumpy transition from opposition to power, from the theoretical to the practical. The conservative agenda has long coalesced around broad policy prescriptions: a neutral tax code, school choice, privatized Social Security, deregulation, medical savings accounts, and so on. The mainstream conservatives in the 105th Congress share these views, of course. But now they know how difficult it can be to advance this agenda, especially when the president doesn't share it.

"Just do it," the cri de coeur of the conservative movement, just doesn't do it. It isn't easy to know how much compromise is too much, or when victory in one battle might cost the war. Is it better to make a budget deal with Bill Clinton, one that will include the first tax cut since 1981, or to demur and make a principled case for deeper tax relief and fundamental tax reform? In the 104th Congress, the Republican majorities looked mainly to themselves. But the fact that Bill Clinton stood them down and won re-election has led them to consider what they can achieve while he is in office.

We will never see the likes of the 104th Congress again, I think. The Republican majority was openly ideological, candid to a fault about its goals and how it wanted to achieve them, self-confident about the rectitude of its course-and utterly persuaded that the American people were on its side.

"Just do it," the cri de coeur of the conservative movement, just doesn’t do it.

The 105th Congress is darker, brooding, edgy, uncertain. If conservatives ever regain the self-confidence they have lost, it will likely be tempered by a sense of prudence. Prudence means not always speaking your mind, not always describing in all its detail your ultimate agenda; it means understanding your weaknesses as well as your strengths. Prudence is no fun--certainly not for the many movement conservatives who miss the candor and heady enthusiasm of the 104th Congress. But that's politics.