Surprising support for Bill Clinton topples Gingrich and intensifies the race for 2000
It may not rise to the stirring level of “We, the people” or “I have a dream,” but Jesse Ventura already has his own memorable line to add to the pantheon of American political rhetoric: “I ain’t got time
to bleed.” He uttered the immortal words as a bit player in an Arnold Schwarzenegger action movie—after his flamboyant career as “The
Body” on the professional wrestling circuit, but well before he stunned the U.S. political establishment last week by winning election as governor of Minnesota. An underfunded third-party candidate beating two of the state’s biggest political names? Im-
possible. A shaven-headed showman who body-slammed his opponents while decked out in feather boas and sequinned tights moving into the governor’s mansion? Outlandish. But, as has happened so often in
this strange political year, the pundits and pollsters got it flat wrong. A billboard that went up in Minneapolis the morning after Ventura’s victory put
it best: ‘We shocked the world.”
Other results of the voting across the United States may not have been as shocking, but in their own way they were no less surprising. Surely, chorused the experts, a party led by a President dogged by scandal
and teetering on the brink of impeachment would suffer at least some retribution from voters. Wrong again. In contests for all 435 seats in the House of Representatives and 34 of the 100 seats in the Senate, Bill Clinton’s Democrats defied the odds. They fought their opponents to a draw in the Senate, where party standings ended up unchanged: 55 Republicans and 45 Democrats. But in a modern-day Deweydefeats-Truman upset, they actually gained five seats in the House, leaving the standings at 223 Republicans and 211 Democrats (plus one re-elected Independent). It was a tremendous blow to Republicans, and the aftershocks came immediately. Conservatives and moderates alike rebelled against the men who had steered their ship onto the rocks. The party’s chief strategist and most controversial figure, House Speaker Newt Gingrich, drew the bitter conclusion: he announced he will step down and clear the way for new leadership.
It was, in its way, the ultimate political turnaround. Only weeks earlier, it was Clinton whose political career was in tatters, and Gingrich who could delight in seeing his arch-foe suffering the humiliations of the Monica Lewinsky sex scandal. Instead, it was Gingrich who took the fall. In four years, he had gone from being a self-described “transformational figure” who won control of Congress for Republicans for the first time in 40 years, to being the scapegoat of a party frustrated at every turn by a President who engineered miraculous escapes from all the political traps they set for him. Gingrich himself blamed conservative hardliners in his ranks for pulling the trigger on him, telling Republican congressmen
that the right-wingers were “cannibals.”
In large part, Gingrich was the author of his own destruction. A fierce partisan and conservative idealogue, he energized Republicans to win a majority in the House in 1994 at a time when American politics were more polarized than they are in the prosperous, complacent late 1990s. But those same qualities made him deeply unpopular among moderate voters and unable to broaden his party’s appeal. And in Clinton, he confronted an opponent far more adept at the art of political survival. Just three weeks before last week’s vote, the President forced the Republicans to fight on his turf by cutting a lastminute budget deal that brought to the fore issues such as education, which favor De-
mocrats. And in a type of political judo, he turned his own weakness—from the Lewinsky scandal—into strength. After plunging the country into 10 months of turmoil through his liaison with the former White House intern and the lies he spun around it, the President successfully managed to paint the hapless Republicans as irresponsible scandal-mongers. As a result, the drive to impeach him in the House hit a brick wall.
Two days after the vote, the chairman of the House judiciary committee, Henry Hyde, announced a drastically scaled-down schedule of impeachment hearings. Instead of the string of familiar scandal figures that might have paraded before the public—such as Lewinsky and her tape-
wielding ex-friend Linda Tripp—his committee will call only a few witnesses, starting on Nov. 19 with independent counsel Kenneth Starr. Clinton himself put the new mood this way: “The American people sent us a message that would break the eardrums of anyone who was listening. They want their business tended to.” Translation: Forget Lewinsky. I’m in the clear.
Hyde’s committee, dominated by a highly partisan Republican majority, might well still vote to impeach Clinton. But the full House would have to ratify such a recommendation, and with the voters’ verdict so fresh in their minds and a Republican majority of just 12 seats, it seems highly unlikely they would do so. Clinton, of course, was not on any ballot and most voters
told pollsters that his fate was not uppermost in their minds. But they also said, by a margin of 65 per cent in a national survey taken outside polling stations, that Clinton should not be impeached and Congress should drop the matter.
And the President could take special pleasure in the defeat of two of his worst Republican tormentors in the Senate. Alfonse D’Amato of New York, who chaired a special committee on the Whitewater scandal, lost to Democrat Charles Schumer, and Lauch Faircloth of North Carolina, who helped to appoint Starr, was defeated by Democrat John Edwards. The outcome leaves Republicans with a nasty dilemma: having launched the impeachment process in September, they now have no obvious way to stop it even though it has become a clear political liability.
At the same time, Republicans will be preoccupied by the fight
among their disparate factions to chart a course after Gingrich. Right-wingers and moderates alike agreed that he had to go, but for opposite reasons. The hard right accused him of failing to articulate a clear conservative alternative to the Democrats; moderates blamed him for failing to broaden the party’s appeal. Gingrich himself frankly admitted his errors. His party, he said on the morning after, should have pushed its agenda of tax cuts and overhauling social security instead of letting the Lewinsky scandal hijack political debate for months on end. “I totally underestimated,” he said, “the degree to which people would just get sick of 24-hour-
a-day talk television and talk radio, and then the degree to which this whole scandal became just sort of disgusting by sheer repetition.” The final nail in his political coffin was his decision in the final week of the campaign to run TV and radio ads raising the scandal issue. If anything, they backfired on Republicans and encouraged Democrats to vote in larger-than-expected numbers.
Once again, the pundits and pollsters got it flat wrong
Republicans are to decide next week who they want to lead them after the new Congress convenes in January, and the scramble has already begun. Louisiana congressman Robert Livingston, the first to challenge his “dear friend” Gingrich even before the Speaker stepped aside, said the party must combine its conservative message with more flexible tactics. Among other congressmen expected to enter the race, Christopher Cox of California confirmed he was in, and Bill Archer of Texas said he would not run.
And the Republicans’ search for new leadership is not limited to Washington. Both parties are looking ahead to a more impor-
tant battleground—the presidential election of 2000. That campaign is well under way: potential Republican candidates like former vice-president Dan Quayle, publisher Steve Forbes and Christian activist Gary Bauer have been testing the waters for months. And with the party’s congressional leadership in turmoil, Republicans are looking to successful governors for examples of how to forge a winning coalition. Men like Tom Ridge of Pennsylvania, Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin and George Pataki
of New York, goes the new reasoning, have managed to strike a balance between conservative principles and pragmatic governing—in sharp contrast to Gingrich’s brand of aggressive, polarizing politics.
The clearest example of that trend is in the South, where sons of a former president now hold sway in two key states. With his landslide re-election as governor of Texas, George W. Bush confirmed his position as early frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination in 2000—if he decides, as expected, to go for it. He leads all prospective candidates, running ahead of VicePresident AÍ Gore by a margin of 51 to 39 per cent in exit polls last week. At the same time, his younger brother, Jeb Bush, won election as governor of Florida. Having brothers running the secondand fourth-most populous states is remarkable enough. With one a likely presidential candidate, the pairing might be enough to put a Bush back in the White House eight years after Clinton ousted their father.
The Bush brothers are all the rage in Republican circles for another reason. Together, they have charted an approach to governing they call, in what has instantly become the new buzz-phrase of U.S. politics, “compassionate conservatism.” Less hard-edged rhetoric about cutting government programs. Less holier-than-thou
moralism aimed at the Republicans’ conservative, family-values base. More talk about ways government can help people left out of the economic boom of the 1990s. And more reaching out to women and minorities.
In many ways, the Bushes have stolen a page from Clinton’s playbook—trying to repackage Republicanism much as he remade the Democratic party for the ’90s. If national Republicans do tilt the brothers’ way at the end of the decade, it will amount to a rejection of the purist path blazed by the discredited Gingrich. And it may be the ultimate political compliment to their chief opponent—Bill Clinton. □
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