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The Republicans’ War

Conservative political leverage also works internally in the House. As he stood outside the House chamber just before the impeachment vote, retiring Representative David Skaggs, a Democrat from Colorado, said he had done some political arithmetic:

Something less than 40 percent of the voters participate in the process that sends us here. A majority of those voters might represent only 18 to 19 percent of the country. The majority within that majority, the conservatives, may be only 10 percent. And within that majority, there is a majority of true believers who represent only seven to eight percent of the country but they wind up controlling the House.

There is, of course, a logical flaw in this arithmetic: the 60 percent who do not participate at all probably include as many conservatives as moderates and liberals. But Representative Ray LaHood, the Illinois Republican who served as acting Speaker during the impeachment votes and who earlier joined with Skaggs in trying to restore comity to the House, agreed that, much to his chagrin, a relative handful of rigidly ideological conservatives have set the tone for the entire House Republican conference at the expense of more moderate members. The moderates might even be a majority—but they are drowned out by the ideologues and cowed by the realities of primary day into going along with the conservatives.

After he announced to the House that he would defy his party leadership and not vote to impeach, Peter King explained why so many of his moder-ate colleagues were following the party leadership: “Never underestimate the power of peer pressure in this place.” For all the high-flown political rhetoric about American laws and ideals, much of what was on display in Washington on Impeachment Day was tribalism cloaked in legalism. Our representatives may look like Republicans and Democrats, and individually they may all be independent-thinking men and women of good will. But when the juices start flowing, they may as well be Hutus and Tutsis. King said of his colleagues: “You can’t argue with some of them that Clinton is just a flawed human being; they don’t accept that he’s a human being.”

Even so, in the end, impeachment came as a surprise. King originally thought he had twenty-five to thirty Republicans with him in opposing impeachment. But, under one kind of pressure or another, almost all of them fell away. Most notable of the defectors was another New York moderate, Jack Quinn of Buffalo, one of the few Republicans who enjoyed close relations with the White House. Quinn initially announced himself opposed to impeachment. It was then brought to his attention that he stood in line to chair the House Subcommittee on Public Buildings, a good bricks-and-mortar assignment guaranteed to bring in campaign contributions. Subcommittee chairmanships go to team players. Quinn changed his mind and stayed with the Republican team.

In addition to King, only three moderates broke with their leadership and voted not to impeach Clinton on any of the four counts against him. They were Amo Houghton of New York, Connie Morella of Maryland, and Christopher Shays of Connecticut. King, Morella, and Shays come from well-to-do suburbs where the hard right is a relatively minor presence, and the patrician Houghton, scion of the Corning Glass family, is one of the few surviving examples of Rockefeller Republicanism. Immediately after the vote, four other moderates announced that while they had voted for impeachment, they were not in favor of removing the President and hoped the Senate would find another solution.

One might wonder if our representatives understood exactly what they were doing, other than bowing to political pressure. For some, the answer is clearly no. Many piously suggested that Clinton could have escaped impeachment if only he had confessed, as though confession would cleanse him of his supposed constitutional offenses. Two of the most conservative Republicans, Congressmen Bill McCollum of Florida and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, both announced, erroneously, that impeachment need not lead to removal of the President because the Senate could convict him but choose not to remove him. It was an astounding admission; as they voted to impeach the President, these two lawyers and members of the Judiciary Committee had not even read the constitutional requirement, Article 2, Section 4, that the President shall be removed from office upon conviction.

On January 7, 1999, the House Judiciary Committee chairman Henry Hyde of Illinois stood in the well of the Senate and read the two articles of impeachment to the one hundred Senators, sitting, according to the rules, at their desks in silence, under pain of imprisonment if they spoke. It was a solemn and foreboding moment, with ninety-six-year-old Strom Thurmond of South Carolina—a man who had pronounced four death sentences in his days as a judge over half a century ago—presiding. The trial formally began without even an agreement on such basic procedures as whether or how to call witnesses. Even the Republican senators were divided on how to proceed, in large part because they face the same political dynamic that confronted the House. Those who might vote to short-circuit a trial or acquit the President must worry, like their House counterparts, about right-wing challenges in the 2000 primary elections. Of the thirty-four senators whose terms expire in 2000, nineteen are Republicans. Those from Northern and Midwestern states that are not safely Republican—Spencer Abraham of Michigan, or Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and Slade Gorton of Washington, for example—have an especially difficult choice: if they appease their primary voters, they risk defeat in the general election.

2.

Central to understanding this Republican Party is the makeup of the 1994 freshman class, seventy-three newcomers who provided the majority—meaning the ability to control the agenda, chair all the committees and subcommittees, and hire the staff—as well as much of the ideological fervor in Speaker Newt Gingrich’s revolution.

These freshmen were a colorful and much-caricatured group. Among them was Wes Cooley of Oregon, a super-patriot and foe of big government spending, who claimed falsely that he had fought in a special operations unit in Korea, and whose wife, the widow of a Marine, continued to collect survivor benefits from the Veterans Administration (i.e., big government) even though she had remarried. There were Helen Chenoweth of Idaho and Steve Stockman of Texas, who had mysterious affinities for the rural right-wing militias. There was Enid Green Waldholtz, a tough Utah lawyer who suddenly turned into the dizziest of airheads when she was asked whether she knew that her husband, Joe, had financed her campaign with an illegal $2 million loan from her father. There were superstars Sonny Bono of California, hitherto best known as the former husband of Cher, and Steve Largent of Oklahoma, the former Seattle Seahawks receiver.

Fred Heineman of North Carolina, a former New York City police officer, thought a middle-class income was something under $700,000 a year. The oddly sweet-tempered Zach Wamp of Tennessee opposed practically all government spending—except for the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in his district. Rick White of Washington is an amiable moderate whose initial and hastily withdrawn campaign posters, I am told, advertised him as “Rich White Republican.” Bob Barr of Georgia, a former CIA analyst and federal prosecutor, addresses John Birch Society and white-supremacist rallies, insisting he has no idea what they stand for.

Now, as most of the 1994 freshmen are ending their second terms, their power remains extraordinary. Barr became the leading House advocate for impeachment. Wamp, Largent, and another freshman, Mark Foley of Florida, were among those whose objections persuaded Livingston to step down. J.C. Watts of Oklahoma is a rising star in the party. And the moderate LaHood, only in his second term, was chosen to preside over the House floor debate on impeachment.

Freshman Mark Souder of Indiana gave Professor Rae an arresting description of the new majority that formed in opposition to Clinton and swept the Republicans into power: “He managed to unite doctors, insurers, gun owners, religious conservatives, motorcyclists, smokers, country-club Republicans, and blue-collar workers,” Souder said. “When I would go to meetings, I would find guys rising with long hair, tattoos, and a cigarette who were agreeing with me! People were upset by motorcycle helmet laws and smoking restrictions. These people were fed up with the intrusion of the federal government.”

They were a new generation,” Linda Killian says in her closely observed study of the personalities of the freshman class. “The first Republican president of their lives was Ronald Reagan. Reagan was a God to them, a religion…. Never mind that they had arrived in Washington specifically to fix the mess that Ronald Reagan had begun, with his tax cuts, military spending on steroids, and unchecked government growth.” Killian says the Republicans believed in what turned out to be a “mythic mandate.” They had been elected out of disgust with the status quo, not because the country at large shared their conservative agenda. In his most recent book Newt Gingrich agrees, citing as one of his lessons learned the hard way the mistake of heeding the loudest voices in the party rather than public opinion: “We mistook their enthusiasm for the views of the American public.”

In addition to their own motivations and enthusiasms, the freshmen walked into a supercharged atmosphere that explains much of the poison of the last four years. The Republicans had been out of power in the House for too long. As a minority in Congress for forty years—they last controlled the House under Eisenhower, in 1954—they had suffered too many indignities, too many defeats, too many petty slights to behave dispassionately once the tide turned. Gingrich, as a powerless backbencher, had perfected the arts of character assassination and guerrilla warfare. He had devised his own official Newt Gingrich vocabulary: he made it clear that liberals and Democrats were to be described, at every possible opportunity, by a list of words that included cynical, corrupt, pathetic, big-spending, traitorous, and criminals.

Stripped of all power by an admittedly arrogant Democratic majority, some of the Republicans had taken to lolling at the back of the House floor, jeering like frat boys at Democratic speakers. One Republican leader, Armey of Texas, once jibed at Democrats on the floor that Republicans had no concern for the political problems of “your President.” The Republican leader at the time, the gentlemanly Bob Michel of Illinois, publicly rebuked him, an act that would be inconceivable in the current House. In this House, Republicans rallied to the defense of Representative Dan Burton of Indiana, who called Clinton a “scumbag.”

When the Republicans took the House in 1995, Michel was gone, and for the survivors it was payback time. Democratic membership on committees was cut. Staffs were purged to make way for conservatives. Gingrich, heady with victory, concluded that he could single-handedly kill federal programs simply by refusing to recognize any representative who proposed funding them, claiming a power even beyond those wielded by the dictatorial “Czar” Thomas Reed of Maine over one hundred years ago. Reed, as a Republican speaker, once told Democrats clamoring for their parliamentary rights: “The right of the minority is to draw its salaries, and its function is to make a quorum.” More recently, Representative Henry Hyde of Illinois, adopting the mannerisms of an elder statesman like Lionel Barrymore in an old Hollywood film, still justified many of his partisan rulings in the House Judiciary Committee impeachment hearings by recalling how Republicans were treated during the impeachment hearings on Richard Nixon in 1974.

Another clue to the impeachment vote is that the new Republican majority has had two contradictory views of itself. First, the members saw themselves as genuine, grassroots citizen-legislators, representing the opinions and interests of average Americans against the entrenched and unresponsive elites that had controlled Washington for so long. Yet whenever they found that America rejected the more radical parts of their agenda, they saw themselves as courageous, principled, independent statesmen who would not yield to mere public opinion while they pursued their objectives for the good of the country, and especially its children and grandchildren. The conservatives were both of the people and disdainful of them. The public was to be both heeded and scorned, as need be. These grassroots revolutionaries would use the power of the federal government to impose basic American values upon the elites, and then, when it was found that most Americans did not share, say, their moral indignation over President Clinton’s sex life, we were denounced for our lax standards. “Where is the outrage?” they demanded in bewilderment.

The new Republican leadership managed to replicate some of Clinton’s political blunders. Just as Clinton, on taking office, found that the question of homosexuals in the military had become embarrassingly controversial, the Republicans, coming to power for the first time in forty years with great hopes for change, plunged into irrelevant sidetracks like attacking the school lunch program and public broadcasting. Scaling back the Democratic welfare state somehow degenerated into killing Big Bird. Repealing environmental regulations turned out to be unpopular with hunters and fishermen as well as middle-class Republicans more concerned about the health of their children than the prosperity of polluting industries. Some of the freshmen were committed to abolishing the Commerce Department or the Department of Education, even though there was no evidence that the voters themselves were demanding such changes. Another failing, Killian says, was the Republicans’ reluctance to cut corporate welfare: “…For all their high-minded talk about discipline, taking responsibility, worrying about future generations, and balancing the budget, the Republicans weren’t cutting programs that helped their friends. Corporate subsidies and tax breaks remained untouched.”

The new Republican majority enacted some useful and overdue reforms. It enacted a ban on gifts to legislators and their staffs, although one with the major loophole of campaign contributions: meals and entertainment that can be described as campaign-related are still allowed. It ended proxy voting, stripping committee chairmen of dictatorial powers. It subjected Congress to the laws that apply to everyone else—although the Constitution’s “speech and debate clause” still shields members from prosecution for acts that would land a member of the executive branch in prison. Other items of its agenda vanished. Term limits failed when the House could not agree on whether congressional terms should be six years or twelve years. The balanced budget amendment to the Constitution died in the Senate.

Conservative antigovernment rhetoric still seemed popular at the start of 1995, but then, in April, the federal office building in Oklahoma City was bombed, and some of the newcomers were shocked into tempering their language. Toward the end of their first year, in November 1995, another disaster struck. In a dispute with Clinton over the level of interim funding of the government, the Republicans, urged on by Gingrich, precipitated a government shutdown. Some thought Clinton was weak and would surrender. Others thought that voters would blame him. Some thought no one would notice. And some thought shutting down the government was a wonderful idea on principle. Once again, the “revolutionaries” entertained two contradictory views of themselves: they were both proud of the shutdown and angry at being blamed for it. They seemed oblivious to the essential services government provides even to conservative voters: the checks mailed to defense contractors; the passports needed by business travelers; the veterans benefits and farm subsidies. Much to their surprise, the government shutdown was a public relations fiasco.

I had a minor part in this debacle. At a Christian Science Monitor press breakfast in November 1995, I teased from Gingrich his rant about being forced to sit in the back of Air Force One on the flight to and from the funeral for Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and then being asked to leave by the rear door. “The story exploded almost immediately,” Gingrich recalls in his memoir. “Of all the papers, and there were quite a few who put the story on the front page, the worst was the New York Daily News, which ran a banner headline on page one that read simply, ‘Crybaby.”’ (In fact, the headline said “Cry Baby.” Gingrich omits that there was also a cartoon of him by Ed Murawinski on that front page that showed him in diapers.) The reaction of his colleagues was summed up in the title of a book by David Maraniss and Michael Weisskopf of The Washington Post, “Tell Newt to Shut Up. Gingrich was tainted for all time. He had made the fatal political mistake of fulfilling the caricature image of himself as self-important and self-centered, and the freshmen began to turn against him.

As 1996 began, the Republicans, including the freshmen, were staring at a harsh reality. They had not managed to achieve most of their basic goals—tax cuts, term limits, and a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution—and they were facing reelection. Idealism quickly succumbed to political necessity. In the most revealing passages in her book, Killian recounts how these fresh-faced revolutionaries began feverishly trying to raise funds for reelection. Van Hilleary of Tennessee, whom Killian followed closely during the first two years, reported that he was spending three hours a day at the National Republican Congressional Committee, dialing for dollars. Killian quotes Ann McBride, the president of Common Cause, as saying the freshmen had “come to shake Washington up [but] they stayed to shake it down.” Some of the freshmen are now entering their last term in office; they had promised to serve no more than six years, and their time is up. Others, like J.C. Watts of Oklahoma, have achieved prominence within the party and are rethinking that pledge.

As the Republicans struggled to diminish Clinton over the past four years, Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr ran a parallel campaign, looking for a crime that could be ascribed to the President. Like the Republicans, Starr watched his own public-approval ratings collapse, and while he brought much of this public distrust on himself, some of the credit for public awareness of his abusive tactics, like grand jury leaks, must go to Alan Dershowitz. In Sexual McCarthyism, Dershowitz collects his Op-Ed articles and other essays critical of Starr and of Clinton’s legal team. His most dramatic insight is no longer news but it has now been spectacularly vindicated. Instead of fighting the sexual harassment suit brought by Paula Jones—which led to Starr’s involvement in the case and Clinton’s impeachment—Clinton should simply have defaulted. He would have had to pay some small amount of money and the case would have ended promptly, causing him a few days’ embarrassment, perhaps, but sparing him and the nation the disgrace of impeachment.

This is such a stunning might-have-been that it begs amplification. Dershowitz gives it: Robert Bennett, Clinton’s lawyer in the Jones case, never explained to him the option of defaulting. Bennett told Dershowitz that defaulting would have been ridiculous because it would have tempted other women to come out with false claims in the hope of making money. The difficulty for Bennett was that he had no idea that the President in fact had had an affair with Monica Lewinsky and would falsely deny it when the Jones lawyers deposed him on January 17, 1998. If Clinton had chosen to default the case, there would have been no deposition, no Starr investigation, no perjury charge, and no impeachment. Because Dershowitz’s book is a collection of columns, parts of it are necessarily dated and there is much repetition. Nevertheless, it provides an interesting recapitulation of a disaster; as with few other commentators, the author has a genuine claim to having said “I told you so.”

As I write just after the end of this wretched year in American history and American journalism, Clinton is in nominal disgrace yet in high public regard, with astronomical job-approval ratings and the prospect that he will finish out his term. In theory, we should be seeing the President squirm at his plight; instead we watch the Republicans struggling for a graceful way out of the predicament they have built for themselves. They have caught the Clinton tiger with their bare hands and now do not know what to do with it; they cannot kill it and they cannot let it go.

Republicans remain in power in both the House and the Senate. If they choose further confrontation with Clinton and the Democrats, they will have to maintain the strictest party discipline to prevent the handful of defections that could give effective legislative control to the Democrats. If they choose bipartisanship, they will be scorned by the party activists who make up the electorate in those crucial primaries in 2000. Moderate Republicans tend to be less angry and less motivated than the party activists and do not turn out as heavily for primaries. Campaign consultants, who now control the minds of so many politicians, love “wedge” issues, not mushy centrism. Some of the Republican aspirants to the 2000 presidential nomination will be goading the Congress to be more conservative, not more accommodating. Statewide presidential primaries are not quite so much at the mercy of small numbers of right-wing activists, but it should be remembered that the first and most important of the 1996 primaries, New Hampshire, was won by Pat Buchanan.

Still, the Republicans do not dare risk tampering with Social Security or Medicare, the two biggest fiscal problems the country faces. Tackling either problem risks antagonizing elderly citizens and giving the Democrats fodder for campaign commercials charging that Republicans are once again trying to kill the country’s protection for retirees. While Republicans agree on cutting taxes, they are hopelessly divided about how to cut them: a capital gains cut or a bigger child exemption, a value-added tax or a flat-rate income tax. What they need, and will have difficulty finding, is a program that is both conservative and politically safe. But they have already named Washington’s National Airport for Ronald Reagan. Apart from impeachment, it was their major achievement of 1998.

January 7, 1999

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