When Bill Clinton out-maneuvered House Republicans in the 1995 budget battle, and they found themselves under fire for “shutting down the government,” wholesale incumbency timidity returned.
In 1989, Newt Gingrich rose to the number two leadership position in the House after a contentious three-way race pitting young backbench conservatives such as myself, Bob Walker, Joe Barton and others against old bulls such as Minority Leader Bob Michel and other ranking members. We thought they suffered from a minority party mindset and were too accommodating of the Democrats. Out of congressional power for nearly two generations, Republicans had become complacent. Senior members of the party were happy to accept the crumbs afforded by Democratic chairmen. Life was comfortable in the minority as long as you did not rock the boat. Members received their perks — such as travel abroad and special banking privileges — and enough pork projects for reelection. The entire Congress lived by the rule of parochial politics.
Gingrich and I and a handful of true believers in Ronald Reagan’s conservative vision set the goal of retaking the House. The “Contract With America” outlined our platform of limited government. This vision appealed to both the social and economic wings of the conservative movement; equally important, it included institutional reforms for a Congress that had grown increasingly arrogant and corrupt. The contract nationalized the vision of the Republican Party in a way that unified our base and appealed to independents. We championed national issues, not local pork projects or the creature comforts of high office.
In 1994, this vision was validated when Republicans took 54 seats in the House, eight seats in the Senate and control of both houses of Congress.
Welfare reform in 1996 only affirmed the revolution. Bureaucrats, special interests and the White House all claimed that the sky would fall if we touched this failed Great Society program, but we held firm. When you take on a sacred cow, you must kill it completely — tinkering on the margins is ineffective. In the end, the reform proved so successful and popular that President Bill Clinton (who rejected the original bill twice) considers it one of the best ideas his administration ever had.
At one point during the welfare reform debates, a member approached me and said, “Dick, I know this is the right thing to do, but my constituents just won’t understand.” I told him, “So you’re telling me they are smart enough to vote for you but not smart enough to understand this?” He ended up voting to pass the bill.
Yet despite such successes, we didn’t learn the right political lessons. A few months before the victory on welfare, we lost the battle over the federal government shutdown of 1995, when we were outmaneuvered by Clinton, a masterful political operator. After that fight, too many Republicans apparently concluded that America wanted bigger government. This misreading was the first step on the road away from the Reagan legacy.
We emerged as a wounded party; we stopped trusting the public; and we internalized the wrong lesson. Since the party won the majority in 1994, the GOP Conference had been consistent in requiring offsetting spending cuts for any new spending initiatives. (In fact, during the aftermath of a large Mississippi River flood, Rep. Jim Nussle even waited to find and approve offsets before moving the relief legislation for his own state of Iowa.) But by the summer of 1997, the appropriators — rightly called the “third party” of Congress — had begun to pass spending bills with Democrats. As soon as politics superseded policy and principle, the avalanche of earmarks that is crushing the party began.
I noticed that Dick Armey failed to discuss how in 1997, with Newt Gingrich under fire from ethics charges trumped up by democrats, House Republicans led by Armey himself attempted to remove Gingrich as Speaker. Consequently the following year, after unexpected electoral setbacks (Republicans lost five House seats), Gingrich was blamed. He resigned the Speakership and left the House, rather than face another rebellion. It’s impossible to avoid comparing the quality of Republican leadership, and ideological commitment, before and after Gingrich’s departure.