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What Happened to the Revolution?

Showdown: The Struggle Between the Gingrich Congress and the Clinton White House

by Elizabeth Drew
Simon and Schuster, 398 pp., $25.00

Storming the Gates: Protest Politics and the Republican Revival

by Dan Balz, by Ronald Brownstein
Little, Brown, 424 pp., $24.95

Dirty Little Secrets: The Persistence of Corruption in American Politics

by Larry J. Sabate, by Glenn R. Simpson
Times Books, 430 pp., $25.00

How could it have faded so fast—the joyous delirium with which Republicans only last year took charge of the Congress and (they were certain) of the nation? It was announced that Peggy Noonan, the Reagan-Bush speech writer, would go back to Washington to do a book on the Revolution. The new Speaker of the House was sworn in with the trappings of a presidential installation. His first Hundred Days were finished with a prime-time address on network TV. First-timers in Congress, unlike their predecessors, came to instruct or to shove aside their elders. The President was reduced to claims that he was—not (like Al Haig) “in charge,” not (like the Supreme Court) important, but (like the weather) “relevant.” A president does not feel the need to inform us that he is not a crook, or not irrelevant, unless appearances are all to the contrary.

There was a nice blend of populism and pedagogy in the ascendancy of professors from out-of-the-way colleges—Dr. Gingrich, Dr. Armey. These were theorists of revolution, who liked to explain what they were doing. Gingrich held daily press conferences before opening House sessions, where he ticked off the items on his legislative agenda. He had brought with him his own chronicler, by the device of appointing the man’s wife as House historian. Beyond merely studying history, these were people come to make it.

Pundits debated whether Gingrich would become president in 1996 or wait till 2000. Others seriously asked if that would not be a demotion, since the election had made Congress the center of government. Young “Newties” like Enid Waldholtz, the new member from Utah, were swept past senior representatives to key places on committees. Democrats looked cowed, because they were. Republicans looked invincible, because they thought they were:

Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very heaven…

Wordsworth’s poem on the French Revolution might have been written for the heady opening days of the Gingrich Era, when all things seemed possible. The Republicans had

…helpers to their heart’s desire,
And stuff at hand plastic as they could wish.

Hopes beyond hopes would defy the seasons of orderly change, to see

The budding rose above the rose full blown.

The Contract would be passed. The question was not whether, but how soon. The agencies would fall. The question was which ones would be cut, which killed. The President could do little to affect or deter what was happening. Even the veto must yield to the Will of the People, so resoundingly expressed in all the 1994 elections—for Senate, for House, for governors, for legislatures. Rarely, it seemed, had a movement united so large a constituency so unequivocally. Welfare, bureaucracy, regulations, career politicians—for all of these the End had come. Madame Noonan was knitting purple prose beside the guillotine.

The very giddiness, for those who know the gods’ ways, was ominous. But who could have predicted the suddenness of the peripeteia? A year later, Clinton was not only relevant but regnant. Gingrich was not the leader of his party but a drag on it, his polls even lower than the sinking approval rate for Congress in general and the whole Republican party in particular. Instead of a rosebud over the blown rose, Gingrich was a millstone below the plummet lines. While some were talking of Hillary Clinton’s “high negatives” (42 percent), Gingrich registered a whopping 52 percent disapproval.1 The man who taught other Republicans what to say in order to win was now being asked by his own creatures not to say anything, lest he make them lose. Revolutions are known to devour their own; but it seemed that this one barely had time to develop an appetite before it gulped down Gingrich.

What happened? Several books help us understand that the villain in the piece was, as is usual in such cases, also the hero. Gingrich was undone by his own devices. He had the genius to invent the “congressional mandate,” and the gullibility to believe in his own invention. A master of destructive techniques, he did not suspect that mere destruction destroys itself. A quick-change artist, he thought he could change society with political tools, which is like changing the weather with a thermometer. Each of these things deserves our attention.

1.

Congressional Mandate

It would be hard to overstate the audacity of the Contract With America. No one had ever before tried to create a national mandate from congressional elections. The president normally claimed to have a commission from all the people, derived from the larger turnout of a presidential year, when only the presidential ticket can be voted for by everyone. Congressional delegates, appealing to local constituents, are sent to represent their sectors of society—a scatter of interests, a babble of voices, a plethora of issues to be compromised.

Actually, even the presidential mandate is largely a fiction, as political scientists have long recognized. A president says, “I supported X and was elected by the people, so the people want X.” Actually, many voters were uninterested in X or ignorant of the candidate’s stand on it. Others were opposed to X, but willing to vote for the candidate because of his stands on Y and Z. Some voted for the candidate simply because he was not his opponent (exit polls showed that was a major reason people voted for Reagan over Carter). Some cast their ballots for John Kennedy because he was a Catholic, or good-looking, or sweated less in debate. Was that a “mandate” for being beautiful? Elections are clumsy tools for setting policy. All they determine is who will be carrying out policy for a while.

If a presidential mandate is shadowy at best, what can one expect of a congressional “mandate,” assembled from so many different regional contests, embodied in no single spokesperson, reflecting agendas and urgencies not universally shared (or not shared with the same intensity)? Why, in fact, would that be desirable? The Constitution envisages local people committing their trust to a delegate who will represent their interests in deliberation with the delegates from other areas. It is one of the many ironies of Gingrich’s movement that, while professing to return government to state and local levels, he urged candidates at those levels to run a national campaign, restricting their campaign themes to those dictated by his national brain trust, forgoing the luxury of response to the particular needs of particular constituents.

How could such a congressional agenda be put together? Two books give us a detailed description of the Contract’s formulation—Showdown, by Elizabeth Drew, and Storming the Gates, by Dan Balz and Ronald Brownstein. More important than the items included in the Contract were those excluded. Divisive issues were suppressed for the duration of the campaign—abortion, school prayer, gun ownership. The point was not to have a discussion of issues people feel deeply about, but to concentrate on areas of maximum agreement. The goal was to win. The Contract offered the strategy for a takeover. After getting control of the Senate and House, Gingrich assured the restive, Republicans could reward their friends, take care of the gun lobby, cut off funds for abortion, kill campaign reforms.

In the Contract, Gingrich assembled targets of opportunity—safe targets like taxes, crime, the deficit, government regulations, lawyers. Some items were not favored by some “contractees.” Gingrich himself had no love for term limits. But individual preferences had to be sacrificed to the general effort.

Once the issues were chosen, and arranged in a canonic decade (Gingrich believes in the power of magic numbers—three and seven and ten), the pollster Frank Luntz was asked to find the most seductive ways of phrasing each point. He found that even the word “Republican” was too divisive for inclusion, so the Republican Contract became just the Contract With America. Since one aim of the 1994 campaign was to win back Perot voters to the Republicans, formulation of Contract items favored by Perot voters got privileged treatment by Luntz. Terminological sugarcoating would be important throughout the Revolution.

The problem with taking a presidential “mandate” as some hard commission on policy is increased five hundredfold with any congressional mandate. How many of those who won their congressional races neglected or downplayed the Contract? How many of those who lost had invoked it? Despite the Republican National Committee’s expenditure ($265,000) to disseminate the Contract in TV Guide, only 17 percent of voters said they were aware of it. Those who knew about it were hazy on its contents. And did those aware of the Contract subscribe to all its items, or just a majority of them, or just one or two points important to them? Which points, and in which combinations? Did the sugarcoating, meant to distract from problems or to deter questioning, actually mislead? How many of the Republican victories reflected simply an anti-incumbent attitude grown abnormally strong in 1994?

There is no denying the effectiveness of the Contract as a campaign tool. It probably did sway a marginal portion of the voters, which is all that can be expected of a campaign ploy. But only those bemused by a metaphor can think that the American people entered into a binding compact to exact from signers of the Contract all the items mentioned in it. The Contract language was invented to please people tired of politics as usual. “See,” it said, “we are not your normal politicians making promises; we are contracting with you to do what you want and if we fail to do it, throw us out” (this last phrase was a real winner with Perot voters surveyed by Luntz).

If voters fell for that hocus-pocus, well and good for the Republicans. But Gingrich was so in love with his own invention that he fell for it himself. There were some early signs that people were not as ardent for the Contract as he claimed they were. The elderly were quick to respond to attempts to limit their benefits (point seven of the Contract, sugarcoated as “fairness for senior citizens”). The Contract gimmick was meant to tell voters they could hold candidates to an enforceable pledge; but Gingrich now wanted to hold the American people to a contractual obligation they supposedly assumed when they voted Republican.

When, responding to such misgivings, some Republicans in the House were tempted to waver, Gingrich held them to the Contract—and, through them, required the people to “keep their bargain.” The teacher of the freshmen Republicans became their taskmaster. He told Elizabeth Drew that his model was Sergeant Stryker, the John Wayne character in Sands of Iwo Jima who must be hard on his troops so they will perform well in battle.2 He made frequent use of the Engler Paradigm—citing the bad polls Governor John Engler of Michigan suffered when he cut benefits in Michigan, only to bounce back higher than ever when economic gains were registered. Gingrich said bad polls were expectable—he had predicted them. But the Contract was what mattered with people. If that were just passed, or most of it, the people would give their admiring support.

  1. 1

    Ms. Clinton’s approval rate was 38 percent, Gingrich’s 22 percent. Bill Clinton’s approval rate more than doubled Gingrich’s (51 percent to 22). Data taken from three polls reported in USA Today, April 15, 1996.

  2. 2

    Gingrich told Drew that Sands of Iwo Jima was “the formative movie of my life”—an important accolade, given the man’s tendency to do all his thinking in terms of movies. He regularly used films to teach history in his seminars, and discussed budget strategy with Bob Dole by saying President Clinton was acting like a character in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. Everyone heard how Gingrich’s policy for troubled children was formed out of Boys’ Town. Ronald Reagan, who was often accused of confusing reality and cinema, was formed by church and sports activities before, as an adult, entering the world of movies. Movies entered Gingrich when he was a lonely and peripatetic child living vicariously in the plots of his favorite pictures. Even marrying his high-school teacher was a way of leaping directly into the adult world of the movie screen.

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