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Ready for Round Two?

Sunday, September 1, 1996

Of all the passions that distort one's view of politics, the greatest, I think, is the desire for closure, the yearning for some golden moment at which it can be said, "Well, that's the end of that." The jury announcing its verdict, the emissaries of a defeated power signing the papers of unconditional surrender, the poker player beating a full house with four of a kind -- decisive and final.

The 104th Congress has learned that in politics there are no permanent victories - that the fat lady never sings

          Perhaps it's understandable. Our politics does have built-in cycles with closure of a sort, namely, elections. Every four years, we have an opportunity to elect a new president or affirm the tenure of the one we have; every two years, we have a new Congress. And the outcome of these elections is rarely ambiguous. Candidate A wins or loses. The House has this many Republicans and that many Democrats. Moreover, the legislative process itself has various endpoints: the moments after the committee report and the floor vote and the conference and the bill-signing ceremony in the Rose Garden, just as the civics textbooks say.

          But even here, closure in politics is overblown. In politics, little is ever settled once and for all. The day after the election is the first day of the next election cycle. So you got a bill passed? Fine. Now an army of bureaucrats will begin writing the regulations and other means of enforcing it; the courts will begin pondering its meaning; the lawmakers themselves, aided by an army of lobbyists and other interested parties, will prepare for the next go-round. Politics ebbs and flows. Victory and defeat are never permanent. "Endism"--the yearning for closure--often amounts to substituting one's political fantasies for reality.

          The essential fact of the 104th Congress is that, as the first GOP Congress in 40 years, it did not live up to the expectations it helped create. Many of its members rode into town two years ago promising nothing less than "revolution." But the budget is not balanced, nor is there a constitutional amendment requiring that it be balanced. There has been no tax relief for families with children, no cut in the capital-gains tax rate, no expanded Individual Retirement Accounts. Nor have we seen fundamental reform in Medicaid for the poor and Medicare for the elderly: Most of the vast entitlement apparatus stands untouched. Broad regulatory relief remains elusive.

          Was the 104th Congress, then, a failure? The position of the Democratic Party sounds like this: The Republicans vastly misinterpreted the results of the 1994 elections that brought them to power. They claimed a broad mandate for change where none existed. Moreover, they were never candid about the specifics of the changes they intended to make. Once the details began to emerge, in the Democratic view, the American people recoiled from the Republicans' extremist positions. Popular opinion turned against this new Congress and its living embodiment, House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Republican expectations that their party would sweep the 1995 off-year elections turned out to be wrong. President Clinton stood up to the GOP legislative blackmail represented by two shutdowns of the federal government. The people responded by supporting him in opinion polls. The Republicans, reeling and desperate, finally gave up. Democrats prepared to take their case to the people in the fall elections, with an excellent chance, they say, of retaining the White House and regaining the Congress, as people think more about what GOP bombthrowers have been trying to do to American society and government.

          This telling is also the version offered by the establishment media. I will leave it to future historians to determine whether the Democratic line and the establishment media's analysis coincide so well because they simply reflect the truth of the situation, or for some other reason. You can also hear this interpretation in certain Republican circles, such as when Al D'Amato launched his celebrated screed against Gingrich, his Contract, and GOP extremism in the spring of 1996. Boiled down, the theme of this argument is: game over. Republicans had their chance, they blew it, and that's the end of that.

          But, in fact, it's not the end of that. Before too long, Democrats will likely be reminded of the fallacy of endism. Even if Republicans lose this November, they are not going to fold their tent and go away. Novels may have a beginning, a middle, and an end, but politics is a perpetual middle.

The essential fact of the 104th Congress is that it did not live up to the expectations it helped create

          Republicans recently suffered their own brutal lesson in the fallacy of endism. Weren't the Democrats finished, kaput, toast, less than two years ago? Wasn't the Democratic president trying to persuade everybody (including, it seemed, himself) of his own relevance? Wasn't the juggernaut of popular opinion that swept the GOP in and the Democrats out going to overpower whatever feeble resistance might be offered by a weak, rudderless, scandal-plagued administration? And wasn't this all merely prologue to the completion of the, well, Revolution--in 1996, when Americans would surely elect a Republican to the White House and all good things would be in legislative reach? And doesn't that all seem a bit naive just now?

          Surely it was unrealistic to expect a true revolution as long as President Clinton occupied the White House, Senate Democrats wielded the power of the filibuster, and House Republicans held only a slim majority. But judged by more modest standards, Republicans in the 104th Congress actually achieved a great deal. And the chief obstacle to the rest of their agenda was Bill Clinton and his veto pen. Didn't get your tax cut? Talk to Clinton. Budget not balanced? Clinton didn't want to balance it. Federal regulators and a legal system still out of control? Clinton vetoed changes. Medicare careening toward insolvency? Been there, vetoed that.

          Republicans can also muster a fairly decent list of things they did manage to get through. The biggest one was surely a welfare overhaul in the form of a broad "devolution" of responsibility to the states. This was, in fact, transforming legislation, an end to a federal entitlement program that was for 30 years the symbol of the promise and failure of the War on Poverty.

          In addition, the president now has a line-item veto, which Democratic Congresses repeatedly refused to give Ronald Reagan. The candidate elected in November will be the first president with the power to use it. Congress also completed a massive revision of telecommunications law, which ought to open up some promising technological vistas and provide more competition in cable, broadcasting, telephone, and information services.

          To everyone's surprise, the vast, centralized apparatus of American agricultural policy was significantly reformed in the Freedom to Farm Act. In lieu of the complicated formulas and procedures that determine how much wheat, corn, rice, and cotton -- the four major "program crops" -- farmers can plant and sell, growers will get a declining subsidy over five years (based on the level of their previous payments from Washington) and freedom to plant crops as they see fit.

Was it realistic to expect a true revolution with Bill Clinton in the White House, Democrats filibustering in the Senate, and the GOP holding a slim majority in the House?

          Congress overrode a presidential veto of securities-litigation reform designed to protect companies from unreasonable class-action lawsuits when their stock price declines. The antiterrorism bill provided a vehicle for streamlining the use of habeas corpus in federal death penalty appeals. And, of course, the national speed limit is history.

          At this writing, there are a couple of other possibilities for significant legislation. Passage of an immigration-reform bill containing sharp restrictions on illegal immigration -- but surprisingly unnativist on legal immigrants -- seems imminent, and the president is widely expected to sign it. There is also a possibility of legislation designed to make health insurance more portable, including a provision for a small experiment with Medical Savings Accounts. And, ahem, how about that minimum-wage increase?

          No, this record doesn't add up to a revolution. It hasn't transformed the policy landscape to resemble maps designed by Republicans. On the other hand, the 104th Congress has nothing to be ashamed of. This is a solid record of legislative achievement. And Republicans are right to say that the achievement would have been much greater had it not been for the president's rather sudden display of backbone, starting in the late fall of 1995.

          That resolve may have been precisely the quality Americans wanted to see in a president whose fecklessness had become something of a national joke, and they rewarded him with higher approval ratings. On the other hand, the president did pass up at least one historic opportunity. As Senator John Ashcroft, the freshman Republican from Missouri, has observed, every president goes to bed at night praying that Congress will announce some major entitlement reform the next day. Even modest changes in entitlement programs usually require blue-ribbon commissions to provide political cover. But this Congress offered two -- not only welfare reform, which Clinton would go along with only the third time a bill landed on his desk, but also a much more politically tricky Medicare fix. The president walked away from Medicare, even though he and his advisers knew the insolvency of the program is certain in the absence of program changes. The White House shamelessly protested the horrific Republican "cuts" in Medicare -- make that "gutting," "slashing," and "destroying" Medicare. The opinion polls favored the president. But they would likely have continued to do so even if he had actually chosen to behave constructively. Clinton could have split the rather small difference with Republicans and anointed himself the savior of Medicare--not only from bankruptcy, but also from heartless Republicans eager to slash it to pay for tax cuts for the rich. For the White House, though, relentless counterattack was the order of the day.

          Besides welfare reform, the Republican Congress got the president to agree to something truly extraordinary in one other area: discretionary (that is, nonentitlement) spending. This is the part of government determined each year through the appropriations process--the 11 big bills that fund the operations of the government itself, and without which (or some other mechanism agreeable to Congress and the president) we get a shutdown. Clinton vetoed a number of these bills and signed only a couple, but the shutdowns led to the other spending mechanism, the "continuing resolution" that set spending levels for all programs where appropriations bills had gone unsigned. To that measure Clinton attached his signature.

          Every year since 1969, spending in the domestic (that is, nonmilitary) discretionary category has increased. (Military spending has had its ups and downs and is now in a sharp decline that has been partially ameliorated by the GOP). That changed in fiscal 1996. The Republican Congress actually did cut spending--not reductions in the rate of increase, not "cuts" against a rising baseline, not "cuts" after adjusting for inflation, but genuine reductions. Domestic discretionary spending was $246 billion in fiscal 1995 and $223 billion in fiscal 1996.

          By contrast, the Clinton administration wanted to spend $30 billion more in 1996 than 1995, instead of $17 billion less. The proposed Clinton budget for the year would have yielded a deficit of $211 billion. Current projections from the Congressional Budget Office show a fiscal 1996 deficit of $117 billion. Economic growth that exceeded projections account for some of this difference. But more than half is the result of cuts in domestic discretionary spending.

          As Ronald D. Utt of The Heritage Foundation has noted, appropriators achieved these savings in part by eliminating some 200 government programs and scaling back many others. The cynical conventional view of Washington has long held that the closest thing to eternal life in this world is a federal government program. Well, good riddance to the Interstate Commerce Commission and the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corporation (to say nothing of the welfare entitlement).

          The discouraging thing is that this $23 billion in savings came out of a federal budget totaling $1.57 trillion, up (thanks to entitlements) from $1.52 trillion last year. In short, the cuts amounted to less than 1.5 percent of total spending.

          And yet this truly was a reversal of a course that had been followed for 26 years. Surely it means something when a Democratic president declares in his State of the Union address that "the era of Big Government is over." Surely, as well, it means something when that same president tacks sharply to the right as he takes his case for re-election to the voters.

          This has been the real Republican solace in the face of frustration during the 104th Congress. The terms of the debate have changed, Republicans tell themselves. America is, undeniably, a conservative country now. Democrats recognize that the old-fashioned, liberal, Big Government agenda is now a loser, and they know that to survive politically, they must run as conservatives. They may, for a time, be able to get away with running right and governing left, as Clinton is trying to do. But eventually their own record will catch up with them, and voters will select the real thing rather than the ersatz version.

          I think there is much truth to this analysis, but there is something about it that bothers me, and that is its endism. William F. Buckley Jr. once wrote, famously, that the conservative mission is "to stand athwart history, shouting 'Stop!'" I have long thought that the problem with this formulation is that history isn't listening. And now conservatives are erring in the other direction, rushing to the conclusion that they represent the future.

          The spending cuts of fiscal 1996 and the advertised end of the era of Big Government are remarkable achievements. But there is nothing permanent about them, and Republicans are deluding themselves if they think otherwise. It is pleasant, in some sense, to think that large forces are at one's back -- certainly more pleasant than the experience of swimming upstream, with which conservatives are plenty familiar. And if public-opinion polls mean anything, the electorate is clearly more responsive to conservative proposals for solving problems than to huge new government bureaucracies. Yet this does not spare Republicans the responsibility and drudgery of fighting, fighting, fighting the daily battles of practical politics, against those who would like government to assume even more control over the lives of the American people. The measure of victory is not just the passage of vast, transforming legislation but also the extinguishing of the lights at the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corporation.

          The most compelling problem of practical politics for Republicans is that they are not as popular right now as they imagined they would be. Whether this decline in popularity threatens their hold on Congress, whether the Democrats have really gained at their expense, whether the electorate in 1994 saw its choices for Congress as a choice between national policies, and whether 1996 will also be such an election--these are all questions that will be "settled" in November. In other words, we will argue about them for years.

          The question for Republicans is how to rebuild their popularity. To answer that question, Republicans must first understand why their popularity rose and fell in the first place. Republicans often claim that by the end of last year, their message had gotten lost--lost in the obsessive focus on balancing the federal budget within seven years. Republicans took popular support for granted and lost sight of the need to explain why the budget had to be balanced. Some add that the message got lost in a media culture that has never understood the Republican agenda and remains hostile to it. In addition, the Clinton administration lied about what Republicans were actually proposing. The solution, in this analysis, is to figure out better ways of both framing the message and communicating it to the people.

          Others have argued that the message was fundamentally flawed from the outset. The supply-side faction of the party, for example, has excoriated the Contract With America for failing to articulate a Reagan-Forbes-Kemp message of hope, growth, and opportunity--and never mind the budget deficit. Still others have said that the message was wrong because it is, as Democrats charged, too extreme. Why make sweeping changes in regulatory policy in areas where most people have come to trust the government -- clean water, clean air, and safe food and drugs?

The biggest achievement of the GOP Congress was ending the federal welfare entitlement

          But I think the biggest problem came from the heady sense of victory following the 1994 elections: We win, they lose; the people are with us, the people are against them. And that's the way it is. Republicans in the House worked very hard on a plan for governing if they should find themselves in power. They studied the House's Democratic masters with care, fashioned a strategy for seizing a majority, and crafted a legislative agenda that they believed reflected the wishes of most Americans. When they finally won, they did what they had set out to do. The Senate is a very different place, less a stranger to Republican control but at the same time less susceptible to control altogether. Yet the Republican Senate went along, too.

          And then . . . they didn't win it all. They did not get everything or even most of the things they wanted. They faced an opposition that did not always fight fair. And the American electorate, whom they thought they had squarely behind them, turned out not to be. Republicans retreated, they regrouped, they recriminated, they refought the battles they had won and the battles they had lost to try to figure out why. And they returned to fight another day, with this change in strategy and that change in tactics, and they recognized that the pursuit of total victory is dangerous when it comes unmoored from the daily business of democratic politics, which is to keep things moving your way while pleasing people.

          The Republicans learned that there is always another day, that this is not a game of chess or a mystery novel, but rather politics, in which nothing is ever settled once and for all and in which the illusion that things are can be your undoing. And that was the greatest accomplishment of the Republicans of the 104th Congress. They learned that in politics there are no permanent victories, that the fat lady never sings. And whether they hang on to Congress in 1996 or return to power in 1998 or later, this wisdom will be essential if they are to govern.