Republicans capture Congress in a backlash against President Bill Clinton’s Democrats
IN WITH THE NEW
Republicans capture Congress in a backlash against President Bill Clinton’s Democrats
CARL MOLLINS IN WASHINGTON
A month before last week’s U.S. midterm elections, as Congress adjourned to
campaign, Republican whip Newt Gingrich assembled a select half-dozen party colleagues from the House of Representatives for a look-ahead meeting. To members of a party in minority for 40 years, Gingrich’s topic seemed outlandish, almost alarming: how to run House business as a majority when the newly elected Congress convenes on Jan. 4.
Participant Jim Kolbe of Arizona, a 10-year veteran in Congress, said later that the lack of government experience meant that “if we do become the majority, we will have a distinct problem with governing.” But on Nov. 8, voters massively handed Republicans that problem in the House and, as well, a Senate majority and control of most state governorships. “It’s like a dream,” said Texan Bill Archer, a congressman since 1970 who aims to chair the potent House ways and
means committee. “But it’s a reality today and we’ve got to roll up our sleeves.”
Archer and other victors promptly flaunted their new political muscle on behalf of a radically conservative agenda promoted by Gingrich, the foregone heir to one of Washington’s most powerful positions, the House Speaker’s chair. With the House in the grip of Gingrich’s far-right Republicans
for the final half of Democrat Bill Clinton’s four-year presidential term, Gingrich served notice of a headlong rush in January to enact
his electioneering “Contract with America.” That legislative lineup commits the Gingrich faction to cut back federal powers, staff and programs, including features of Clinton’s policies. On the morning after the defeat of the Democrats, Gingrich spoke of co-operating with the White House. But 24 hours later, he declared that “the contract,
in my mind, is not very negotiable.”
For good measure, the combative Georgian who had described the Clinton administration during the election campaign as “the enemy of normal Americans,” denounced White House staff last week as “leftwing elitists.” And Gingrich dismissed the President and First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton as “counterculture McGovernicks,” in a reference to George McGovern, the leftish Democrat leader
of the early 1970s. Clinton, his presidency critically and perhaps fatally wounded by the election, retorted plaintively: “I’m a middleaged man who’s worked very hard in his life to be a mainstream American, and I think I’ve done a reasonable job of it.” (At 48, Clinton is three years younger than Gingrich.)
That exchange foreshadowed a hostile run-
up to the 1996 presidential election. The Gingrich contract, along with causes espoused by his faction and its religious-right supporters, has provoked alarm not only among liberal Democrats but also among middle-of-the-road Republicans, including Bob Dole, the designated Senate majority leader. Michael Barone, an author of the annual Almanac of American Politics, foresees the possibility of at least two years of “justsay-no government” if Gingrichist policies prevail. They say “no” to new taxes and some existing levies, “no” to more spending and some present programs, “no” to abortion and welfare dependency, “no” to expanded foreign aid and involvement in UN peacekeeping and “no” to affirmative rights for women, gays and ethnic minorities.
Gingrich asserts that the electorate delivered a mandate to fulfil the contract. It will be read aloud each day in the House for the first 100 days of the 104th Congress, he said. “It is our bible,” said Bill Paxon, the representative from suburban Buffalo, N.Y., who chaired the House Republican election campaign committee. “It is our guiding set of principles.”
Mandate or not, the verdict delivered on Nov. 8 savaged the Democrats. In fact, an exit poll of voters showed that only one in three had even heard of the contract. Many analysts conclude that the election result was more a midterm rebuff to the drifting Clinton “New” Democrats and his experiment melding social concerns with conservative economics: the aborted half-measure health-insurance reform coupled with proposals to limit public welfare. Said Thomas Mann, director of governmental studies at Washington’s Brookings Institution, “1994 has already been institutionalized as the year of the angry voter.” An economy in transformation, with layoffs and pay freezes, has fostered widespread uncertainty, said Mann, “a case of insecurity breeding resentment
breeding anger.” The sense of insecurity has been augmented by violent crime, added Mann. “Americans are scared.”
The anger and fear swept away Democrats in congressional, state and local elections. The Republican juggernaut reversed a 56-to44 Senate Democratic majority to a 52-to-48 Republican edge on election night and then, the morning after, to a 53-to-47 tally when Alabaman Richard Shelby defected from the Democrats two years into his second six-year term. The transformation of the 435-seat
House of Representatives was more profound. Needing a daunting net gain of 40
seats to capture a bare House
majority of 218 members, the
Republicans will surpass that goal by as many as a dozen seats once tallies in closerun contests are completed.
Among the victims in the House: Speaker Thomas Foley of Spokane, Wash., after 30 years of tenure, the first Speaker defeated since 1860; Jack Brooks of Beaumont, Tex., chairman of the judiciary committee, after 42 years; Dan Rostenkowski of Chicago, former chairman of the ways and means committee, after 36 years. Pennsylvania voters turned Harris Wofford out of the Senate only three years after choosing the advocate of Canadian-style public medicare in a special election to fill a vacancy.
New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, eloquent spokesman for liberalism, lost a bid for a fourth four-year term to little-known Republican George Pataki. And in Texas, the seemingly popular Ann Richards lost after one term to George Bush Jr., elder son of the former president. His brother, John Ellis (Jeb) Bush, failed to unseat Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles despite dismissing the incumbent as “an old liberal”—a damning pejorative nowadays in U.S. politics that sent many middle-of-the-road Democrats to defeat. Among the few others to survive the anti-liberal onslaught were members of the Kennedy clan, led by Senator Edward Kennedy, 62, in Massachusetts. His son Patrick, 27, won a seat in the House on his first try in Rhode Island. It was no contest for Joe Kennedy, the late Robert’s 42-year-old eldest son, who ran unopposed for a fifth two-year term representing Cambridge, Mass., in the House.
In California, Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein withstood an expensive challenge from oil fortune heir Michael Huffington, who poured about $27 million of his own money into his effort. At the same time, however, California voters overwhelmingly supported Proposition 187, a sweeping measure that would cut off public services to illegal immigrants.
A Senate result that brought a measure of comfort to Democrats—and to many in the
Republican Party establishment— was the defeat in Virginia of Oliver (Ollie) North. The ex-marine, convicted on charges connected with the Iran-Contra scandal in the 1980s, then freed on legal technicalities, came close to unseating Democrat Charles Robb. North’s candidacy, heavily bankrolled by the religious right and other conservative groups, was openly denounced by leading Republicans.
Apart from such pluses for the Democrats, the scale of their rout leaves the party in disarray and the political future of Bill Clinton in serious doubt. “We are in the middle of a revolution here,” declared a rueful Clinton on the morning after, when he vowed to seek a bipartisan accommodation with a Republican Congress. Clinton is only the third Democratic president in this century to be faced by an opposition Congress, the first being Woodrow Wilson in 1919-1920, the second Harry Truman in 1947-1948. Democrats have maintained majorities in the House for all but four years in the last 64, and in the Senate for all but 12 years since 1931. The Republicans have won both chambers only twice in that time span, each for only two years, the last time under President Dwight Eisenhower.
Recollection of an earlier Republican double majority offers Democrats a little hope for the coming congressional sitting— and a possible lesson in election
tactics for Clinton, the self-described “comeback kid.” Harry Truman, who succeeded to the presidency after Franklin Roosevelt died in April, 1945, faced the social uncertainties, and a burst of inflation, after the end of the Second World War that summer. The electorate’s discontent in the 1946 midterm election swept the Republicans into Congress, among them an array of ultraconservatives including Richard Nixon and liberal-baiter Joe McCarthy.
That 80th Congress balked at Truman’s
social initiatives, including establishment of a health and welfare department, shut down more than 40 federal departments and agencies and passed the notorious Taft-Hartley Act to sharply curtail labor unions. Republicans, and many Democrats, wrote Truman’s political death warrant. But “Give-’em-hell Harry” prevailed. He stumped the country campaign-
ing against “the do-nothing, good-for-nothing” 80th Congress. Defying opinion polls, Truman won a four-
way contest and carried his party back to power in Congress.
There are active politicians in Washington now who remember the short-lived Republican victory in the 1940s. Among them is South Carolina Republican Strom Thurmond, who ran against Truman in the 1948 presidential election as a “StatesRights Democrat” and is now, at 91, the designated chairman of the Senate armed services committee. In 1948, Jesse Helms was a journalist in North Carolina; Senator Helms, 73, an ultraconservative who aims to cut out U.S. foreign aid, will chair the Senate foreign relations committee. In Truman’s time, Bob Dole was slowly recovering from war wounds that left him even now, at 71, in frequent pain and without use of his right hand. He is
mindful of the Truman lesson. After promising Clinton last week to behave with responsibility, Dole warned his triumphant Republicans that “if we don’t produce now, we’ll get kicked out for a long time again.”
As political Washington edgily readied itself for a change of the guard, Dole’s message served as a take-it-easy signal to
Gingrich and, perhaps contrarily, as a signal to Bill Clinton to hang tough like Give-’em-hell Harry. □
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