Even the venue Sen. Alfonse D’Amato picked for the opening salvo of an internecine war against the conservatives of his own party was perfect — Don Imus’s shock-jock, politician-larded radio show. D’Amato went off on a tear against the conservative wing of his party, one that he would still be embellishing upon weeks later despite a ferocious counterattack from the conservative wing and a plea from the party chairman for everyone please to shut up.
The highlights of the outburst:
. “Newt Gingrich is a smart man, but he misread the  election entirely. . . . People did not vote to cut funding for the environment and cut funding for programs they care about.”
. “People did vote for change, but not for this revolution.”
. “Instead of moving conservatively to reduce the scope of government, we moved too quickly in too many areas and created a sense of unease about who we were and what we believe in.”
. “Less than 10 percent of the people knew anything about the Contract with America.”
. “I think we do a great disservice to ourselves if we think that people want a Republican party that is perceived as exclusionary. . . . We should not march to some philosophical ayatollah, . . . an ayatollah like Pat Buchanan.”
The counterattack came quickly from House majority leader Dick Armey: “You know, his room apparently didn’t teach him not to bite the hand that feeds him. Newt Gingrich and the Contract with America is why he’s Chairman D’Amato now.” And, “I would be thrilled if Al D’Amato would get in touch with the Republican message.”
From Gingrich: “I don’t know why he is wandering around saying these things. ” From Tony Blankley, Gingrich’s spokesman: “[D’Amato’s comments] obviously reflect the liberal views of his constituents.”
Nothing like a good inside-the-Beltway eye-gouging, of course. But there is much more to the D’Amato Outburst than that. In fact, this dispute actually offers the best window to date on the central substantive conflict within the Republican party: the perpetual tension between the party’s conservative ideological wing and what has been called its pragmatic or moderate wing — but might more accurately be called its merely partisan wing.
It is, in a sense, one of those storied “battles for the soul of the party.” Except that this battle is unlikely ever to produce a winner. And the issue is not two competing visions of what the party’s soul should be, but a determined effort on the part of the party’s ideological wing to give the party a soul — defined, delimited, and internally consistent — and the resistance of the partisan wing to any such endeavor.
The essential characteristic of the conservative, ideological wing of the party is its belief that it knows, in general, the answers to all the questions that are relevant. Oh, reasonable people will differ on specifics: what kind of tax cut, for example, or where to cut spending first, or how many requirements to impose on states as the federal government devolves certain responsibilities to them. But those are matters for the legislative process to resolve. Previously resolved — thoroughly settled, in fact — are the Big Picture issues: limited government; markets and market solutions; more freedom.
The first serious attempt to codify these principles into a legislative agenda was the Contract with America. To the signatories, the Contract had two meanings. First, its substance; second, the way it differed from the usual pie-in-the-sky promises candidates make. So it was that once the dust settled from the election and Republicans found themselves in charge, the House organized its business along the ideological lines of the Contract. The process came with a fairly rigid enforcement mechanism. Promise-keeping was central in the GOP’s pitch to voters in 1994, and therefore any deviation from the agreed agenda would have been (and was) portrayed as an act of self- destruction. One might vote against a particular piece of Contract-related legislation or support this or that amendment to it; but one could neither take a Contract item off the agenda nor construct an alternate agenda that would interfere with the Contract and the Republican budget that emanated from it.
The House in 1995 was, accordingly, a place where the dominant ideology drove the political machinery with a certainty that has not been seen in the body in 20 years or more. Moreover, this ideology truly did constitute a reversal of course, an about-face from the premises that had dominated the body, at times explicitly and at other times inchoately, since the New Deal.
The ideologically driven legislation passed by the House did dictate a large portion of the business of the Senate. But the Senate can hardly be said to have been animated by the same ideological impulses that governed the House. Only nine Republicans were added to the Senate, not the 73 added to the House. The Senate’s character had not changed from what it had been before the 1994 election, though the balance of power had shifted to the Republicans. Throughout the year, and with a few rare exceptions, the Senate’s position was more or less “yes, but . . .”
In practice, the “but” most often amounted to an attenuation of the House legislation. A $ 500 billion tax cut from the House? Make it $ 250 billion. Tough provisions against illegitimacy in welfare reform? Let states decide.
After an initial uptick when they took control, Republicans soon saw their poll numbers slip. Many, especially in the House, were unconcerned at first, preferring to ascribe the reversal of fortune to the comparative slowness with which the Senate was acting. They were confident that the numbers would improve once people started to see the results, i.e., the legislation on the president’s desk, ready for his signature.
The confidence was a result, at least in part, of the conviction that they were doing the right thing. But it was also a function of the belief that items in the Contract enjoyed popular support ranging from broad to overwhelming. For all the talk of revolution, Republicans in the House did not imagine themselves to be leading the electorate into wholly uncharted territory. In fact, they thought they had it mapped rather well — through polls, focus groups, and the like. D’Amato’s observation that only 10 percent of Americans had ever heard of the Contract with America was misleading. Americans had heard of the issues in the Contract — a balanced budget, tax cuts, a line-item veto, making Congress live by the same laws it passes for everyone else, term limits, and so on. Americans liked those things. That’s what they have consistently said.
But for some of those less ideologically animated than the House Republicans, that initial downturn in the polls was worrisome. It provided an opening for the Democrats, and it reinforced concerns that had largely been submerged when the polls were rising and the momentum was entirely the GOP’s. For example, consider school lunches, the program over which Republicans took a pasting in the first serious Democratic counterattack on the new Congress. The Republican budget proposal featured an increase in school-lunch spending of 4 percent a year, rather than the 5.2 percent directed by existing law. Democrats immediately assailed it as a cut, rather than a reduction in the rate of increase. And the issue, as they say in politics, “had purchase.”
For many Republicans, the school lunch program was a harbinger of what might go wrong. But the school-lunch affair had one meaning for ideological Republicans, and an entirely different meaning for their non-ideological compatriots. For the first group, it was an example of the shameless Democratic demagoguery they could expect ahead, served up to the American people by an entirely uncritical media. For the second group, though, it was a warning that House Republicans could go too far. The school lunch program was, after all, very popular with Americans, and it enjoyed broad bipartisan support. Gutting it would be unthinkable. Of course House Republicans were actually doing no such thing, and they had the numbers to prove it; but no one was listening, particularly. The perception of cutting, aided by the fiery rhetoric of revolution, was afoot in the land, and a number of Republicans, especially senators who might have taken occasion over the years to praise the school lunch program to the skies, wanted nothing to do with it.
The Contract makes no mention of school lunches. But of course the Contract was only an outline. How, finally, would the budget be balanced? What would the details look like? And what, really, did Republicans mean by product- liability reform, regulatory reform, unchaining Americans from onerous Washington mandates and the clutches of overweening federal bureaucrats? Even for many of those prepared to concede that the items of the Contract were, in general, popular, the details now forthcoming from those in the House fleshing it out could be startling. This is not what they meant at all; this was not it, at all.
Perhaps it was the substance of the legislative changes that was unnerving. Perhaps the discomfort came as a result of pressure from traditional Washington sources — lobbyists, interest groups, a liberal media culture, etc. Perhaps it was merely poll results, the fact that some of the policy changes being undertaken, in areas such as the environment and education, were meeting with public disapproval — whether or not that disapproval was due in part to the outrageous caricaturing of GOP proposals by the political opposition.
To say that the worries may have been “merely” poll-driven, however, is to impose an ideologue’s view on a segment of the political scene that does not share that view. For the ideologically inclined, deteriorating poll numbers indicate not the prudence of retreat, but the necessity to hang firm. Americans will come around once they see that the practical results are nothing like what opponents say; to back off is to agree, implicitly, with opponents” criticism; what Americans like least is politicians who don’t keep their promises and stick to their guns; vacillation is death — and a deserved death, one might add. On the non-ideological side, deteriorating poll numbers are an indication that, well, one’s positions are out of sync with the public. What else could they mean? And since a practical politician’s first obligation is to please the electorate-within reason, of course — indications of public displeasure are a powerful signal to change course.
Come the government shutdowns and the immensely frustrating negotiations with the White House over whether and how to reach a budget agreement, public opinion forced the two competing views within the GOP to come to a head. Americans were blaming the Republican Congress for the government shutdown, and the media were thumping its deleterious effects. Once again, the ideologues of the party, especially in the House, wanted to stay the course.
But the non-ideological wing of the party had had enough. It was time to move on, nurse the wounds, try to repair the damage. Bob Dole reached that conclusion first, on behalf of his own presidential aspirations and the non- ideological Republicans of the Senate. He maneuvered the reopening of the government through the Senate at a time when more ideologically inclined senators — most notably his then-presidential rival Phil Gramm — were nowhere near the Senate floor to object. And the House turned around because Newt Gingrich, revolutionist in chief, personally turned it. His change of heart demonstrated that there were limits to ideology even among ideologues. Some remained opposed to the last; others went along bitterly. But in the end, most were not prepared to rip their leadership apart in the interest of pursuing their vision.
D’Amato’s “Imus” outburst is testimony to the lingering pain and suffering within the party. The objective correlatives are all there. The president is up, Congress is down; Democrats up, Republicans down; Clinton up, Dole down. From D’Amato’s point of view, this was all unnecessary.
Leave aside D’Amato’s personal role in voting for much of what he would subsequently attack. Leave aside, also, that his complaints come with the benefit of hindsight. The essence of his assessment is that the relentless effort to impose a conservative ideological vision on American politics and government led Republicans to lose sight of the wishes of the people who entrusted them with power in the first place.
The near-universal belief among ideological Republicans is that the 1994 elections were “nationalized” around the conservative agenda of the Contract with America. This notion, in the D’Amato view, is fundamentally flawed. More people voted Republican this time because they had come to agree, in general and in a very vague way, with Republican criticisms of Democratic governance. Democrats had done little or nothing to please them during the time the party had control of Congress and the White House. Voters wanted to try something new, and that’s one of the reasons D’Amato is now the chairman of the banking committee. But he does not believe voters were offering an affirmation of wholesale support for a Republican agenda; they hadn’t even heard of the part of it that Republicans had articulated, let alone the aspects of it that only came out once Republicans got power. People like environmental protection and safe meat and school lunches and college loans, for heaven’s sake.
As of now, D’Amato has the better of this argument, because he is the one with the better answer to the question, “What went wrong?” Why is the Republican agenda not now the law of the land? The answer from the ideological camp is that the message got lost, the president found his missing spine, and Democrats will shamelessly lie in their last-ditch attempt to keep power. All of which may be true, but most of which begs the question: What was the message? How was the president able to find his spine? Is the entire content of the Democratic message a lie? The implication of these answers for the ideologues is clear: Things went wrong for us through no real fault of our own — no important fault, that is. Tactical mistakes, yes — but at bottom, the program was sound.
D’Amato’s answer to what went wrong is that Republicans got too far ahead of the American people.
But if D’Amato has managed to articulate the current GOP problem with some acuity — and, let it be noted, with a generous helping of self-aggrandizing, obnoxious braggadocio — his prescription for where to go from here amounts to nothing. The problem with his relentlessly anti4deological view is that it is little more than a complaint. When the time comes to move on, it offers nothing. It is opinion-poll populism, relentlessly in favor of good things, resolutely opposed to bad things, whatever they are. It wishes, somehow, to lead from behind, with the popular will out front.
This disposition has its uses. It can, in principle, serve as a valuable check on an ideological vision in danger of coming unmoored from public opinion — though there is no particular evidence that it performed that function in the 104th Congress; instead, it made its entrance in time for the recriminations. Moreover, many are the senators who have made long careers for themselves by keeping their heads down and their fingers to the wind.
But the merely partisan, anti-ideological persuasion has its limitations as well. Let us not forget what can happen in the absence of “the vision thing.” And if it should so happen that you have a vision and your vision proves to be flawed, the solution is not sightlessness. It’s finding a better pair of glasses.