One Big Mess, In Search of a Big Idea

E.J. Dionne, Jr.
EJ Dionne
E.J. Dionne, Jr. W. Averell Harriman Chair and Senior Fellow - Governance Studies

July 27, 1997

If you want to know who’s behind the turmoil in the Republican Party, Republicans will happily supply you with a long list.

Some blame House Speaker Newt Gingrich, while others blame the House leaders who conspired with rebels to overthrow him. Some point to moderates who dilute the party’s message, others to right-wingers whose message would drive the party into political oblivion. Some accuse conservative commentators and columnists, saying they lack loyalty and discipline. The commentators say their critics won’t face unpleasant facts. And all Republicans blame President Clinton for craftily stealing their issues.

But there is a common thread to many of the complaints, and it transcends the failures of particular individuals or specific strategies. Since the 1996 elections, Republicans—who once prided themselves on big ideas and big commitments—have not known what to say or where to lead. This view comes from many varieties of Republican. Consider this testimony from interviews last week:

“We don’t have an agenda of our own,” said Rep. David McIntosh (R-Ind.), a staunch conservative and Gingrich critic. “We’ve agreed to let Clinton lead and we’ll react and that’s led to our coalition falling apart.”

“There’s a leadership vacuum and an ideological vacuum that nobody’s been able to fill,” said Rep. Scott Klug (R-Wis.), a moderate on some issues and conservative on others. “We’ve lost a lot of our vision about what we’re going to do in the next two years.”

“The 1994 election was a big election, but there’s no denying that it was primarily a negative election,” said William Kristol, editor of the conservative Weekly Standard. “The task of leadership is to take a negative mandate, whether it was 1789 in France or 1932 in America, and turn it into a positive mandate. It seems pretty clear that the Republicans failed at that.”

They failed, of course, when they failed to oust Bill Clinton in 1996. As Kristol never stopped reminding audiences for two years after 1994, congressional election victories can be transforming only when they eventually lead to a takeover of the presidency. The Democrats’ big gains in the 1930 congressional elections did not mark the beginning of a long Democratic Era. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s victory in 1932 did that.

The GOP’s 1996 defeat opened the way for the rebirth of factionalism, as defeat always does. After the election, Republican pollster Tony Fabrizio did a study that unearthed five warring factions in the party. He labeled them supply siders, deficit hawks, moralists, cultural populists and progressives. Whether Republicans bought Fabrizio’s labels or not, it was hard to refute his argument that these are not the glorious Reagan days.

What gnaws at Republicans to this day is how Clinton maneuvered them, and they maneuvered themselves, into a strategy that guaranteed Clinton’s re-election and nearly cost them their House majority.

Key players in this drama were members of the Class of 1994, the “revolutionaries” for whom compromise was a concept born in a corrupt and despoiled Washington. It’s hard to remember now what heroes those new members were to the entire Republican party when they first arrived. They seemed to vindicate what had long been Gingrich’s thesis: that an older and amiable Republican party leadership had been too accommodating to Washington’s ways which, in the end, were the ways of Democrats and the New Deal. The new guard believed that confrontation in pursuit of total victory was no vice and compromise in pursuit of re-election was no virtue.

Gingrich not only drew energy from the rebels but set entirely new expectations for what a speaker should be and what he should do. As the main architect of the Republican triumph—the one Republican who never stopped thinking about tomorrow and the victory it would bring—he had this right, and he seized it. For a while, he displaced Bill Clinton as the main voice in Washington, taking on the aura of President Gingrich.

The combination of the uncompromising freshmen and the highly exposed Gingrich proved a killer for the Republicans once they decided to fight Clinton on the 1995 budget and shut the government down—twice. The supreme confidence of the freshmen forced the leadership to stick to a confrontational strategy. Gingrich had been so successful in establishing himself as Washington’s supreme figure that he and his party were blamed for the shutdowns.

“The government shutdown sent shivers through the party and that created more doubt among anti-government Republicans because they were so confident when they pushed the shutdown that it would work,” said Peter Wehner, policy director for Empower America, a conservative advocacy organization. “The confidence grew from a belief that government was so unpopular that people would cheer. And they didn’t.”

If anyone seemed to learn from the failure, it was Gingrich himself, who regularly lectures all who will listen on the distinction among tactics, strategy and long-term objectives. If confrontation didn’t work, then victory would have to come more slowly and by other means.

Republicans who missed an opportunity to make a deal with Clinton in 1995 wouldn’t miss it again in 1997. Who could complain if Republicans won Clinton’s blessing for some of their most cherished goals—tax cuts, especially in capital gains, and a balanced budget?

This view, says Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.), a Gingrich ally, is simply common sense. “We only have a margin of 11 votes in a body where 435 people vote,” he said. “We still want to reduce the size of government and cut taxes, but we can’t move as quickly as we want to because we don’t have the White House and the Senate is more cautious.”

One person’s compromise, however, is another’s sell-out. GOP dissidents speak of Gingrich as liberal Democrats speak of Clinton: Each side worries its leader is too ready to cave.

Here is where tactics and strategy collide with vision. Some Republicans, such as Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Tex.), thought the budget didn’t include enough spending cuts and falsely promised balance. Advocates of radical tax reform, such as former GOP presidential candidate Steve Forbes, saw the tax cuts as penny ante.

Within the House, McIntosh said, conservatives would at least like to see the Republicans “fight and fight and fight” and then “compromise at the very last minute.” There is nothing wrong, in McIntosh’s view, with standing up for principle by sending Clinton a budget bill even if it is absolutely clear he will veto it.

But Republican revolutionaries aren’t as fashionable as they used to be. “A lot of the people who are going after Newt Gingrich are the same people who would have had him go further in the government shutdown,” said Fabrizio. “Where would they have left the party? The revolutionaries thought when they were elected that they were given Superman uniforms and they were impervious to pain. They’re not.”

“Some believed they were especially anointed to define what the righteous course was for the party,” said Rep. Rick Lazio (R-N.Y.). Lazio sees the recent attempted coup as stemming in part in Gingrich’s break with other Republican leaders in opposing the strategy that turned the Disaster Relief Bill into the Republican Political Disaster Act of 1997. Republicans tacked on their ideological extras, courting Clinton’s veto. Clinton vetoed and won the public-relations fight almost exactly as he did in 1995.

If the recent leadership struggle were simply an internecine House matter—power politics mixed with pungent personalities—it might not mean much. And some of the objections to Gingrich have nothing to do with ideology. Even his supporters worry that his unpopularity will harm Republicans in 1998. Some complain of his taking decisions and deals without consultation. And it says something that every one of Gingrich’s top lieutenants was sufficiently dissatisfied with him that they were either complicit in the effort to topple him, or willing to entertain that possibility. It says something about them, but also about him.

But the Gingrich coup fiasco is also a symptom of the Republican idea vacuum described by Klug and others. “It’s hard for our generals to maintain leadership when they can’t point a direction, when they can’t say what to fight for,” said Alex Castellanos, a Republican consultant.

“It’s not the lack of an agenda—there are a lot of items on the agenda,” said Wehner. “The problem is that there isn’t a lot of passion about two or three items on the agenda.”

But there is passion in the inside-the-party battles over what those two or three items will be. The divide between libertarians and social conservatives has never gone away, and Clinton gave it a new opportunity to play out when he nominated Republican Gov. William Weld of Massachusetts to be ambassador to Mexico. Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), as conservative on social issues as Weld is not, has vowed to block Weld’s appointment. Odds are Helms will win, but not before Weld has a chance to expose divisions on issues such as abortion that Republicans keep trying to bury. “In plain language, I am not Senator Helms’s kind of Republican,” Weld said earlier this month. “I do not pass his litmus test on social policy. Nor do I want to.”

Those divisions aside, even the Republican standbys that Gingrich emphasizes, such as smaller government, don’t pack the same punch they did three years ago. Adam Meyerson, editor of the Heritage Foundation’s magazine, Policy Review, thinks that conservatives are in better shape than they seem and that Americans appreciate the “general direction” of the small government agenda. But “they aren’t necessarily on board with the steps for getting there,” he said. In other words, Americans like “small government” as an idea and many government programs as a fact.

This problem has been aggravated by Clinton, who stole Republican rhetoric (“the era of big government is over”) while defending popular programs—against Republicans. The result, says Castellanos, is that the perceptions of Republicans are pushed “ever farther to the right and we fall off the edge.”

Gingrich weathered the storm for now because most Republicans accept, if often grudgingly, that a party hemmed in by Clinton and a small majority can only do so much. And Republicans showed signs of toughening their negotiating stance on the budget, which makes rebels such as McIntosh happy. That’s why the GOP’s clear-the-air meeting last week turned into a teary, self-help session.

But this strategy—summarized by Klug as “not making waves so we can win re-election in 1998″—ultimately won’t satisfy Republicans who thought they had a big idea with the Contract With America, and knew they had one when Ronald Reagan talked about the struggles of the Cold War.

McIntosh still points to the unfinished contract as a model and wants to push deregulation, legal reform and popular items such as an end to the marriage penalty in the tax code.

But Kristol sees the contract as “kind of thin” and lacking in “an underlying thesis the way Progressives had a thesis or Roosevelt had a thesis or Reagan in his way had a thesis.”

Kristol’s thesis is “a call to national greatness,” described in a manifesto written by his Weekly Standard colleague, David Brooks. Brooks criticizes the Republicans’ “blanket hostility to government” and even takes on the devolution of power from Washington to the states. “Certain government services may be delivered more efficiently from Albany, Harrisburg or Sacramento,” Brooks wrote, “but ultimately, America’s purpose can find its voice only in Washington.” Turning to Teddy Roosevelt for inspiration, the greatness enthusiasts would have the United States pursue an expansive foreign policy, including more a critical approach to China.

The Roosevelt aroma of some of these ideas may make them more appealing to Democrats than Republicans. Kristol acknowledges that the greatness theme rankles two of the most important groups of Republicans trying to impart a vision to the party. Libertarians (activist Grover Norquist’s “leave us alone” coalition) see the idea as a conservative rationale for big government. A group that might be called Civil Society Republicans—they tout the value of local community and voluntary, church-based action against poverty—rejects the brand of nationalism Brooks extols. McIntosh and Castellanos think the Republicans’ big idea will ultimately arise from a synthesis of the anti-government and civil society views.

In a speech last week, Gingrich described the thrill that Barry Goldwater’s classic, “The Conscience of a Conservative,” sent through the ranks of the conservative movement. It may be comforting to Republicans that Goldwater’s thesis was as divisive for the party in his day as any of the ideas now floating around. Republican infighting didn’t start with the move to bring down Gingrich.

But Republicans thought they had settled their ideological battles, thanks first to Reagan and then the contract. In fact, neither settlement endured. The Republicans can’t live without a big idea, and can’t seem to find one. And so they feud.