The American Spectator
Conservatives Inside Out: Lessons Learned the Hard Way, A Personal Report by Newt Gingrich, HarperCollins / 229 pages / $25
The Freshmen: What Happened to the Republican Revolution? by Linda Killian, Westview / 463 pages / $28
The great national political story of the century’s closing decades is the collision of conservative ideology and political reality–that is, what happens when conservatism tries to govern. The answer has been unfolding since the election in November 1994 of a Republican Congress that, notwithstanding a Democrat in the White House, promised a “Revolution” in Washington. Almost four years later, with the GOP still in power on Capitol Hill and that same president coasting at his highest approval ratings ever, many ideological conservatives deem the result a disaster–and blame it on the failure of elected officials to fight for their principles. Most Republican officeholders, on the other hand, don’t consider themselves any less conservative now than in the exuberance of 1995; they claim incremental success in the face of extraordinary opposition and ask for patience.
If conservatism is going to govern–if it is to be not merely a theoretical exercise but a political program that changes how things get done–then those two views must be reconciled. The recent flowering of ideological conservatism in American politics–a new kind of conservatism that sees the country’s best days in the future, provided that we wrest national politics and policy from sixty years of statism–might be the birth of a new era, potentially as important as the preceding New Deal era of ideological liberalism. Or it might prove an aberration, a strange moment when conservatism unhappily left the safe harbor of small magazines and think tanks, where the survivors will return after the whole thing crashes on the rocks.
Two new books offer vastly different but complementary perspectives on the first years of this political experiment. The Freshmen, by veteran Capitol Hill reporter Linda Killian, offers the view from the legislative trenches, a portrait of the new members elected in 1994 and their triumphs and frustrations along the way to 1996. Lessons Learned the Hard Way is the view from the top, House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s memoir of his progress to date as the leading figure of ascendant Republicanism–an astonishingly honest and insightful account of his mistakes in that role. Any future account of this historic period is going to draw heavily on these two books.
There were seventy-three new Republican members of the House elected in 1994, a huge incoming class by any reckoning. But as Killian notes, it wasn’t just the size of the class that made it meaningful to speak of this group in shorthand as “the freshmen.” These men and women shared a certain view of the world; an agreement over basic principles; a sense of themselves as agents of change, as people whose job it would be to reverse the fundamentally wrong course of American government. In all this, they were of like mind with the new GOP minority leadership that had emerged in the 103rd Congress of 1993-94- -especially with Newt Gingrich, who had positioned himself to take over the House Republicans come the retirement of the ineffectual Bob Michel; and with Dick Armey, then the chairman of the House Republican Conference.
What the freshmen and these leaders had in common, and what in turn connected them with myriad outsiders who felt they had a personal stake in the 1994 elections, was ideology. They had come of age during the formative years of a new, forward-looking conservatism–an ideology that promised to lead conservatives out of the political wilderness to which they had been relegated during decades of liberal advance; a self-confident ideology that would step forward, engage, and eventually defeat liberalism. Whether or not this group or collection of groups constituted a genuine “conservative movement” in the mass sense, from Newt Gingrich to the freshman Republicans to the Washington activists to the supporters and subscribers and listeners throughout the country, its members truly felt connected to a common project, and their happiest day was November 8, 1994, when they believed their ideas would at last become the law of the land.
To be sure, there were other kinds of Republicans elected to Congress in 1994: old bulls more interested in the craft of legislation than its content, some of whom became committee chairmen; and the group of self-described ” moderates” who regarded the ideological conservatives with distaste. But in the runup to the election, Gingrich and Armey marginalized other voices within the GOP through the Contract with America, their legislative program for the first 100 days of a Republican 104th Congress. While some ideological conservatives had complained about the Contract on grounds that it didn’t do enough, they ultimately accepted it as the consensus on what to do first. With virtually all GOP incumbents and challengers signed on, House Republicans spoke with one voice. Conservative ideology was on the march.
This ideology hardly came out of nowhere in 1994 (although that’s how it looked to most liberals, who simply hadn’t paid much attention to conservatives up until then). Some trace its development back to the early days of National Review, or to the Goldwater campaign of 1964, through the birth of neoconservatism in the 1970’s, and so on in a million pamphlets, position papers, research reports, and magazine articles. Nor did conservative ideology develop wholly without reference to the practical problems of wielding power. Ronald Reagan was nothing if not ideological, and is still revered by conservative true believers. His achievements, in their view, were epic, and the defects of his administration, in their view, can be traced to a Democrat-controlled House and to the apostasy of some of his appointees. A great president can accomplish much with the legislature controlled by his opponents, but not what would have been possible with his own party in charge.
For the first two years of the Clinton administration, conservatives stood more or less united in opposition to the president and the Democratic Congress. During this period they honed their arguments and broadcast them as far and wide as possible. Their effort encompassed elected officials, the party’s national committee, outside activist groups, conservative think tanks and non-profits, and conservative media–especially the new “alternative” media that rejected the liberal culture of the establishment’s outlets. (Not for nothing, as Killian notes, did the 1994 freshmen name Rush Limbaugh an honorary member of their class; he “had probably done just as much (as Gingrich) to get them elected,” they believed.) By turning over the House and Senate to Republicans in November 1994–responding to a specific invitation, complete with a detailed program of what would follow–voters bought not just particular candidates but a whole package.
At least that was what ideological conservatives believed. Having nationalized the elections as a referendum on conservative ideology, they eagerly claimed a mandate and set their sights on implementing it. Like any ideology, conservatism has both a descriptive and prescriptive component. It not only claims to know what to do; it claims to have an explanation for its own successes and failures, and for those of its enemies. The explanation conservative ideology offered for what happened in November 1994 was simply that conservative ideology had triumphed.
In effect, the ideological conservatives unilaterally enrolled the majority of the 1994 American electorate as members in good standing of their ambitious political enterprise. Forty years of Democratic control of the House would now be succeeded by a like period of Republican control. Bill Clinton, a figure of questionable legitimacy to begin with, would recede into nothingness and be replaced by a Republican president in 1997, at which time whatever remained of the prescriptive part of the conservative ideological agenda would be signed into law. The first months of 1995 proceeded on the assumption that Clinton, having notoriously insisted at a news conference that he was still relevant, was in fact anything but. Nor were the exhausted forces of Democratic Party liberalism capable of a serious counterattack. They were “history.”
How wrong that was. And how few, from the triumphant first days of the GOP Congress to the ignominious GOP surrender after the second government shutdown, were the conservative ideologues inside or outside the Congress who saw things right.
Gingrich’s new book is in large measure a confession of precisely this error: “We mistook (our own activists’) enthusiasm for the views of the American public.”
Gingrich thought Clinton would have to make a deal on the budget in the face of pressure from the shutdown. Why? Clinton would get blamed for the shutdown; presidents always did, as the Reagan experience demonstrated. Moreover, on matters of the budget Congress had the upper hand–as the Democrats had proved by forcing Reagan to accept the spending, and consequent deficits, which he abhorred. Clinton had no real standing with the public; he was weak and vacillating, and by advancing a radical health care proposal he had just contributed mightily to a historic defeat for his party. He had to make a deal.
No, in fact, he didn’t. Gingrich writes: “We had much too cavalierly underrated the power of the president, even a president who had lost his legislative majority and was in a certain amount of trouble for other reasons. “ The “we” to which Gingrich refers in that statement should properly be understood as the entire conservative ideological community. Viewed from the inside, conservative ideology was an irresistible force. There were many quarreling elements within its ranks, contending schools of thought and competing personalities, but those arguments never seriously endangered the big project everyone had signed up for, namely, remaking the government according to conservative ideological principles. Gingrich himself knew that this was no mere legislative agenda he was pursuing: “I…was essentially a political leader of a grassroots movement seeking to do nothing less than reshape the federal government along with the political culture of the nation.”
The GOP freshmen emerge from Killian’s reporting as people of principled determination and unwillingness to bend under pressure. Nothing would make them stop or even hesitate in their task. Until it failed. With hindsight, principled determination is easy to portray as pig-headed vainglory. Once it turned out that Clinton could resist and win by doing so, ideological conservatives responded with surprise, frustration, and pain. “Virtually overnight,” Killian writes of the freshmen, “they had been transformed into a markedly different group than that which had arrived in Washington one year earlier. They were worn out and tired, and they were sick of fighting and losing.” The forward march of conservative ideology, its implementation as a governing philosophy, wasn’t irresistible after all.
This was the collision of ideology and political reality–the moment of truth when it became apparent that conservatism didn’t have all the answers it needed to transform ideas into action. Accordingly, it was more or less at this point that ideological conservatism divided into two camps that remain edgily suspicious, if not outright hostile, to each other even now. It’s the theorists versus the practitioners–more to the point, it’s a battle between the outsiders and the insiders over what really happened during the government shutdown and since, and what that means for the future of ideological conservatism.
The main lines of the fight are clear. The outsiders–the bulk of the Washington activist community off Capitol Hill, including the think-tank types, most (though not all) nationally prominent conservative media voices, and most of Rush Limbaugh’s (and others’) listeners–mainly blame the practitioners. They claim that the politicians did not adequately prepare public opinion for the shutdown, nor do anything to counter the Democrats’ well-financed media campaign of demagogic accusations about Republicans’ intentions. They bungled, and as a result, they lost.
Some say the problem was not that Clinton won in the opinion polls over shutting down the government, but that the Republicans suffered a failure of nerve: They reopened the government at the very moment when public support for the president was starting to erode. They were right in the first place but didn’t follow through. Ever since then, in the outsiders’ view, the politicians have been shell-shocked, afraid of their own shadows–and of the shadow of Bill Clinton above all. Their principal commitment now is to survival, the preservation of the Republican majority, whether or not that majority can implement the conservative ideological agenda.
The insiders–chiefly the GOP politicians on Capitol Hill and professional Republicans at the national committee, including an army of consultants, pollsters, and camp followers–blame the problems on their own initial overreaching. In sum, they blame ideological exuberance of the kind they once acted on–the kind still promoted by the outsiders. Political reality does not so readily bend to force of will, they say. You can’t make the president sign the legislation, and if he vetoes it, unless you have enough votes to override him (as Republicans don’t), you lose. Losing is not only bad politics, it’s bad for conservatism, because it sets back the prospect of moving the government in a conservative direction.
Insiders complain that the outsiders are willing to concede only tactical faults, ignoring strategic problems that started when Republicans overreached the mandate they had won in 1994 and underestimated the power of their opponents. When the outsiders say that conservatives on Capitol Hill stopped marching, insiders reply that you don’t march unprotected into the enemy cannons; instead, you try to win one little piece of strategic ground at a time–sometimes at the expense of less important ground conceded to your opponent.
Some of those on the inside–especially among the freshman class of 1994– remain outsiders in spirit. They speak out against Republicans losing their conservative moorings and have little patience for the new incrementalist sensibility of GOP leaders. But mostly, the divide between the theorists and the political practitioners holds true, and their conflict continues to rip at the heart of American conservatism.
The 1997 balanced budget deal GOP congressional leaders made with President Clinton was a dramatic case in point. The insiders popped the champagne corks, claiming that at last they had won the victory Bill Clinton had temporarily denied them. Here was a balanced budget by 2002 that cut taxes and included many reforms, in such areas as Medicare, that Democrats had previously derided as cruel. That was progress on all fronts.
No it wasn’t, said the outsiders; it was a sellout. It granted Clinton more spending than he had even asked for as well as Big Government policy changes in such areas as health care–all in exchange for phony entitlement reform and a puny tax cut that only made the revenue code more complicated.
The outsider-insider split has led to legislative trouble as well, as in the Republicans’ biggest fiasco of 1997, the botched GOP disaster relief bill. Republicans first sent the White House the legislation, whose primary purpose was to get aid to flood victims in the Northern Plains, with two riders dear to the GOP. One would have precluded another government shutdown by providing an automatic government funding mechanism. Another would have prevented any statistical adjustment of the 2000 Census, which Republicans view as an opportunity for Democratic chicanery. The idea behind attaching the two provisions was that Clinton needed to get the disaster relief money out sooner rather than later, and that he would therefore accept these GOP priorities–or perhaps compromise and agree to one of them.
But why should he have? Instead, with a practiced hand from the days of the government shutdown, the president vetoed the legislation and blamed Republicans for standing in the way of disaster relief. The GOP once again took a beating in opinion polls. Gingrich quickly pulled the plug, ordering a vote on the relief money without the riders–the clean legislation Clinton wanted. It passed, but not without many hard feelings; most of the GOP leadership voted against it. As Gingrich recalls the source of the problem: ” however weary and bruised and gun-shy some of its House members had become, (the GOP) would nevertheless continue to be dominated by those of us who still believe unconditionally in the power of will.” Hence the decision to include the two riders in the unrealistic expectation that Clinton would have to go along. But as Linda Killian quotes Rep. Lindsey Graham, now a sophomore, “When it got tough, Newt cut and ran….After leading us up the hill, he went down the other side without us.”
Those two quotations aptly capture the divide in ideological conservatism today. Some on the outside think they see the significance of this: What we have now is merely a center-right Congress, not an ideologically conservative one, and our best chance for the latter may be if the current crowd gets the heave-ho. This view echoes the argument that since George Bush had broken his tax pledge, conservatives would be better off for his loss in 1992.
This view, it seems to me, is off the mark. The Republican leadership has not suddenly grown moderate in sensibility or preoccupied with the legislative process–as a mechanism for retaining power–at the expense of outcome. A newfound respect for the limits of politics is not the same as a lurch to the left.
Yet conservative political leaders must get used to being judged, and found wanting, by standards they consider unreasonable. Those are precisely the standards the outsiders will apply; the ideal is always going to be used to fault what’s real. While liberal ideology reigned supreme, its tangible results nevertheless ebbed and flowed, and those on the outside were sometimes frustrated by the lack of progress. The liberal outsiders had confidence, however, in the intentions of their political leaders. And to judge by the conservative critique of liberalism, those outsiders had ample reason to be satisfied with the progress of liberalism as a governing ideology.
Conservative insiders must understand that their comrades don’t have fifty years of success to look back on and draw confidence from–their history is only four years old, and much of the time has been full of frustration. Outsiders need reassurance that insiders still believe in the critique of liberal ideology developed back in the days before there were insiders and outsiders. Insiders will find a more receptive audience for complaints about the difficulties of political reality if there are no suspicions on these lines. Right now, there are plenty.
Perhaps ideological conservatism–forward-looking, reform-minded, optimistic about what happens when people are freer–will not be able to govern after all. A prolonged and deepening split over bona fides between insiders and outsiders might lead to failure: “Let’s skip the battle altogether and just get on with the fun of deciding who lost it.”
If that happens, conservatism in this country will become something very different from its current battered, but still vibrant, incarnation. It will become insular, rueful, dour, resigned to permanent political irrelevance. Michael Oakeshott comes to mind. The conservative credo will be that this is the best of all possible worlds–not out of any regard for present conditions, but out of the certainty that things will get worse. The fight will have gone out of it, and what’s left will be a conservatism of sensibility–among whose central tenets will be the smug conviction that those silly ideological conservatives, who thought they were really going to stop this long decline and fall, really got everything wrong.