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Storming the gates : protest politics and the Republican revival /
Dan Balz and Ronald Brownstein.
edition
1st ed.
imprint
Boston : Little, Brown, c1996.
description
424 p. ; 24 cm.
ISBN
0316080381
format(s)
Book
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More Details
added author
imprint
Boston : Little, Brown, c1996.
isbn
0316080381
catalogue key
1644232
 
Includes bibliographical references (p. 399-403) and index.
A Look Inside
First Chapter


Chapter One

The Whirlwind

THE FIRST RETURNS reached Washington soon after the polls closed in Kentucky on the evening of May 24, 1994, and in the cream-colored, brick building on First Street in southeast Washington, an explosion of cheers erupted. The Republicans were anticipating a long night of counting, and a few of the stalwarts from the House had assembled with the campaign staff at party headquarters to await the outcome. In the annals of American politics, the contest that held their interest seemed insignificant, just another special election for a vacant House seat in a mostly rural congressional district in Kentucky. But the Republicans knew this was no ordinary election, and now the early numbers looked far better than anyone expected.

Six months later, they would look back on the Kentucky election as the first volley in the revolution of 1994, but if there was anything notable to most of the country about the contest that night, it was the event that had precipitated the election: the death two months earlier of the man who had held the seat for more than forty years. Democrat William H. Natcher had come to Washington in 1953, the next-to-last year the Republicans controlled the House of Representatives. After four decades in Congress, the courtly and courteous Kentucky gentleman was an institution within the institution. He rose to the chairmanship of the powerful House Appropriations Committee and established an astonishing attendance record by casting 18,401 consecutive roll-call votes--the last four from a gurney rolled onto the House floor--before his ailing body finally rebelled and prevented him from leaving the hospital, where a few weeks later he died. Natcher's long career neatly encompassed the forty-year era in which the Democrats had controlled the House and, in a very real sense, controlled Washington itself. Through five Republican Presidents and six years of a Republican Senate, the House remained in Democratic hands, a bulwark against conservative insurgents and the central nervous system that maintained and nurtured the tight web of relationships and interests that defined official Washington.

Kentucky's Second Congressional District long had contributed to Democratic dominance in the House. Home to both Fort Knox and Abraham Lincoln's birthplace, the Second District had been in Democratic hands since 1865, and even in 1994, 68 percent of voters registered as Democrats. Over the years, however, the voters in the Second District, which spreads from the Louisville suburbs west along the Ohio River and south toward the Tennessee border, had regularly cast their ballots for Republican presidential candidates. George Bush carried the district by twenty percentage points in 1988 and even in the Republican debacle of 1992, when Bill Clinton was winning Kentucky on his way to the White House, Bush still managed narrowly to capture the Second District. On paper at least, the Republicans should have been able to win the Second District. But that was the case with scores of districts around the country. On paper, they always looked good. It was finding the right candidate and honing the message and raising the money and building the coalition and all the other elements of a good campaign that so often seemed to elude the Republicans.

So much had escaped from them below the level of the White House. After controlling the presidency for twelve years with Ronald Reagan and George Bush, Republicans held fewer seats in Congress than when Reagan took office. During the Reagan-Bush years, the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) had spent $260 million trying to win back the House, but they managed to reduce the GOP numbers from 192 in 1981 to 176 when Clinton took office. The GOP's position in the Senate was similarly shaky: After Bush's defeat Republicans held just forty-three seats, ten fewer than after Reagan's election. In the states, things looked no better. When Clinton took the oath of office in January 1993, just seventeen of the fifty governors were Republicans; the GOP had not held a majority of governors since 1970. As a party, Republicans appeared demoralized over the loss of the White House, confused about how to combat the new President and struggling to find a unifying symbol to replace the devil of communism that had bound them throughout the Cold War. In the summer of 1993, Newt Gingrich, then the Republican whip in the House, groused that the party's image was that of "a negative, out-of-touch, country club party that failed." At that point, it was far from clear that the party could summon the will or the unity to revive itself.

But by the spring of 1994, Republicans had begun to sense extraordinary opportunities, and some of the more astute Democratic operatives glumly agreed. Among them was David Dixon, the political director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, who quietly called in reporters and independent analysts like Charles Cook and Stuart Rothenberg to point out to them in striking detail the Democrats, predicament in district after district. Dixon hoped that through them, he could shake the incumbent Democrats from their electoral complacency.

Beginning a few weeks after Clinton's election in 1992, Republicans had won a string of elections, including contests to fill Senate seats in Georgia and Texas, governorships in Virginia and New Jersey, and mayoral offices in the nation's two largest cities, New York and Los Angeles. Retirements in the House and Senate had created unexpected openings for the Republicans, and for the first time in the postwar era, the round of redistricting that followed the 1990 census had erased many of the advantages Democrats earlier had enjoyed, thanks to a massive legal and political effort coordinated out of the Republican National Committee during Bush's presidency. With all their other problems, Democratic candidates now faced district boundaries far more evenly balanced between the parties than in prior years. In addition, Republicans reported a banner year in recruitment of candidates and actually expected to field more candidates for the House than the Democrats. With Clinton's legislative agenda--particularly health care, the crown jewel of Clinton's presidency--stalling in Congress, and with the President's popularity sinking in the polls, Republican leaders like Gingrich, then-Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole, and Republican National Committee Chairman Haley Barbour expressed increasing optimism about the fall elections--and were beginning to believe their own pumped-up rhetoric.

The party that lost its way in 1992 once again had begun to act like a political party with a unified message and internal discipline. Over the eighteen months since Bush's defeat, Republicans had eagerly returned to the anti-Washington themes that had resonated from Re,publican candidates since Barry Goldwater's 1964 campaign but that had become increasingly muted throughout the Bush presidency. Recasting themselves as the vehicle for the swell of anger rising up around the country, Republicans sought to energize a growing anti-government grassroots army of gun owners, term limits advocates, religious conservatives, small-business owners, taxpayer activists, and followers of Ross Perot. With the help of sympathetic talk radio hosts around the country, the Republicans systematically stoked the populist resentment toward Washington--or simply allowed themselves to be swept along in its wale. In the process, they tried to change their own image. "We had to change the definition of who we were," said Don Fierce, who directed the RNC's office of strategic planning and maintained the party's links with the grassroots organizations. To most Americans, Fierce said, Republicans were still the party of "rich, white, fat guys not connected to the people. What we were trying to do was to become a populist party."

KENTUCKY'S Second District appeared to be the ideal laboratory to test the limits of this appeal. Two weeks earlier, the Republicans had won another special election, this one in a longtime Democratic district that stretched from Oklahoma City west into the Oklahoma Panhandle. The Republican candidate, a farmer and rancher named Frank Lucas, had pummeled his Democratic opponent, Dan Webber Jr., as a creature of the liberal Washington establishment. Even though Webber worked for popular Oklahoma Senator David Boren, a conservative Democrat who frequently frustrated the Clinton White House, he might as well have been part of Ted Kennedy's inner circle the way the Republicans portrayed him. Lucas, who farmed land his family had owned for a century, attacked Webber in television ads for having a home in the capital but not in Oklahoma and for "Washington values" that were by implication antithetical to those in the district. On the ground in Oklahoma, an antigovernment army mobilized support behind Lucas: U.S. Term Limits sent out fifty thousand pieces of mail and aired radio ads; the Oklahoma Taxpayer's Union spent $30,000 on a radio campaign; and the Christian Coalition passed out eighty thousand "voter guides" favorable to Lucas. WIth all these forces behind him, Lucas raced to an easy victory. On the night of Lucas's victory, Gingrich turned to John Morgan, one of the GOP's leading analysts of congressional districts, and asked, "Can we win Kentucky?" "I've had my eye on It for thirty years," Morgan said.

Despite the euphoria over Oklahoma, the contest in Kentucky looked like a terrible mismatch for the Republicans. The Democratic candidate, Joe Prather, was well known, having served as state party chairman and for a decade as the Democratic leader in the Kentucky state Senate. The Republican candidate was a little-known minister named Ron Lewis, who operated a Christian bookstore and had not run for office in more than twenty years. But well before the Oklahoma election, Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell had tipped Gingrich and the chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, Representative Bill Paxon of New York, to the possibility of an upset in his home state. Flying to Richard Nixon's funeral in late April, McConnell pulled Gingrich aside and assured him that, despite Lewis's light credentials, he could win the race against Prather--if the party made a maximum-financial commitment to his campaign.

The campaign committee earlier had commissioned a poll of the Kentucky district, and a few days after Nixon's funeral, the results came back. Conducted by the firm of Richard Wirthlin, who was reagan's pollster, the survey showed Prather with a fifteen-point lead over Lewis, which was far from insurmountable in a low-profile special election. Even more promising were the results on Clinton, which demonstrated the President's abysmal standing in the district. Only 30 percent thought he deserved reelection in 1996, while 56 percent--including almost half the Democrats surveyed--agreed that voting Republican would be a good way to send a message of dissatisfaction with Clinton and the Democrats. The poll results dictated the Republican strategy. "We're going after Clinton," Paxon told his

Republican leaders agreed on one other element of strategy: The only way they could win was with a stealth campaign that caught the Democrats napping. Even though the campaign committee was broke, Gingrich and Paxon ordered the staff to prepare a full-scale campaign plan, then Galled Lewis and quietly advised him to keep organizing but hold on to his money. To reinforce-the message, the state Republican committee sent in a staff member to take control of the Lewis campaign's checkbook, knowing that every cent available would be needed for a last-minute television blitz. Meanwhile, back in Washington, GOP leaders threw up a wall of disinformation. "We kept sending out the word around town that-we can't win this race; we're not even going to try," Paxon said. "We've got the wrong candidate, we have the wrong district, it ain't going to happen." It was not a tough sell. Maria Cino, Paxon's aide, who was executive director of the campaign committee, received a telephone call from a friend one Saturday morning proposing an afternoon golf game. Cino begged off, saying she had to work on the Lewis race. "I'll give you Oklahoma," the friend, who happened to come from Kentucky, told Cino. "But there is just no way to ever win Kentucky. You're wasting your time."

At the Republican National Committee, Haley Barbour also remained a skeptic, despite McConnell's pleadings for financial help for Lewis. "Mitch just blistered me over the phone," Barbour said. Before he would agree to commit the RNC's money, Barbour demanded something in return. First, McConnell had to agree to help raise a substantial amount of money too; and second, Barbour wanted Terry Carmack, the Republican Party chairman in Kentucky, to take direct control of Lewis's campaign. Carmack later slipped out of his office without alerting reporters to his temporary deployment. Shortly after the Oklahoma victory, Paxon met with Gingrich at the Georgia congressman Capitol office for one last, agonizing meeting about money. Their House colleagues had pitched in to help finance the Lucas victory in Oklahoma, but it took them six weeks to raise the money. The GOP needed an even larger effort for Lewis, but had a few days to do it. Gingrich and Paxon knew energy already was building for 1994. If they made an all-out effort in Kentucky and then fell short, would that blunt their momentum? But Gingrich lived to take risks. "The polling was clear," Paxon said. "People were pissed at Clinton, so let's take a shot at it."

True to their mandate, the NRCC staff had prepared a wickedly effective campaign plan built around a single, visually stunning television commercial quickly dubbed "the morph ad." The morph ad came to symbolize the GOP strategy for 1994. "If you like Bill Clinton you'll love Joe Prather," an announcer's voice intoned, while on the screen Prather's face magically dissolved into Clinton's. The ad,which represented an ingenious technique for linking every Democratic candidate to the unpopular President, was the brainchild of Dan Leonard, the NRCC communications director. Leonard had begged Cino for the money to produce the ad, and a colleague found a computer firm in downtown Washington to create the digitized images for only $2,000. Armed with the ad, the staff convinced lewis to scrap a planned series of biographical spots and hit Prather head on with the morph ad. "I wanted to get it out as soon as we could," Lewis said. On Friday, May 13, the Lewis campaign suddenly surfaced across the Second District with a saturation-level television buy. "Send a message to Bill Clinton," the announcer concluded in the ad, reading straight out of the Wirthlin poll. "Send Ran Lewis to Congress." When Gingrich and Paxon showed their colleagues the commercial during a caucus early the next week, they went wild, cheering, stomping, standing on chairs, and applauding.

Overnight, the morph ad reshaped the Kentucky contest. Prather once so confident that he had been searching out housing in Washington, suddenly fauna himself on the defensive, unable to respond to the digital pummeling. Democratic leaders in Washington begged him to fight back aggressively, but he seemed frozen in the headlights by the Republican assault. Meanwhile, Lewis continued to press his new-found advantage. Bob Dole came in to fly around the district with Lewis. It was the first time Lewis's wife had ever been on an airplane. On the ground, as in Oklahoma, a storm of direct mail, voter guides and other pro-Lewis material rained down on the voters from populist, grassroots groups like the National Rifle Association, the Christian Coalition, Americans for Tax Reform, and United We Stand. The Democrats protested that these "independent expenditures" smelled of collusion with the Republican Party and Lewis's campaign, the same media-buying firm, they noted, was purchasing commercial time for both Lewis and Americans for Tax Reform. But the Republicans simply brushed aside the complaint and kept firing.

The polls closed at 6 P.M. on May 24. Within an hour, a friend of Lewis's, analyzing precinct returns from the district, told the Republican he was on his way to Congress. In Washington, NRCC analysts came to the same conclusion a short time later, and word spread quickly to the row of House office buildings lining Independence Avenue, bringing Gingrich and a stream of Republicans to the NRCC offices on the second floor of the party headquarters. They found a celebration that looked like a fraternity keg party already well lubricated. The giddy members toasted one another with beers and high fives, and someone called Barbour in Israel with the news of Lewis's 55-45 percent win. Republicans knew the Kentucky race represented a turning point of enormous significance. "You could almost just feel that dam burst," Paxon said.

Lewis's victory gave sudden credibility to Republican claims that a tidal wave of resentment threatened to sweep away forty years of Democratic control of the House. Republican incumbents who had spent their careers in the minority began to believe that whet once was only a dream might actually be possible, that they might hold the gavels and sit in the majority. They had found in Clinton the glue to unify their voter coalition. The next day, speaking of the television commercial that torpedoed Prather's campaign, Gingrich said, "I wouldn't be surprised to see that ad in two hundred districts this fall." To which Clinton pollster Stanley B. Greenberg replied, "I hope so. I think people will vote for change rather than negativism and a return to the Reagan-Bush years."

THE FIRE OUT THERE

The Kentucky election instantly and dramatically changed the complexion of 1994, despite days of denial by the Democrats. Democratic leaders tried to pin the defeat on the inadequacy of their candidate rather than the weakness of their President, but most people knew better. Whatever Prather's weaknesses, the loss of confidence in Clinton's leadership and the intensity of voter frustration with Washington created a climate for Democrats that had all the stability of a Mason jar full of nitroglycerin. "Even under the best of circumstances, this would be a sough year for us," Geoffrey Garin, a Democratic pollster, said one day in the summer. "But frankly, this isn't even close to the best of circumstances."

The evidence of volatility was unmistakable, and yet no one could be certain how the voters would express their wrath with politicians in Washington. It was like a power line blown down in a storm, charged with electricity and pulsing randomly along the road. Much of the anger was aimed at the Clinton administration. One voter, a participant in a Republican focus group during the summer of 1944, complained that in watching the administration, it was impossible to know if he was watching "a bad rerun of The Little Rascals or The Keystone Cops. Is it a bunch of kids praying games, or are they totally clueless?" But an equal amount of venom spewed forth toward the Congress. In mid-1994, a Washington Post-ABC News Poll found that six in-ten Americans disapproved of the 103rd Congress, a level of disapproval double that of twenty years earlier, and the more they knew the less they liked. Voters saw Congress as a distant institution where perks and privilege passed for public representation: Four of five voters said members of Congress cared more about keeping power than caring for the country, while three in four said candidates made promises with no intention of keeping them. "I think Democrats and Republicans both are clones of their own systems and neither of the two groups really seems to care about the needs, the desires, the concerns of average Americans," Rik Sawyer, an antiques dealer from Maine, said.

Why shouldn't people believe that? Over the previous decade, congressional scandals, not great legislative accomplishments, had captured the public's attention: Jim Wright's resignation as Speaker of the House in 1989, which came after a long ethics investigation; the midnight pay raise that looked like grand larceny to a cynical electorate; the revelation that the House bank had routinely allowed members to cash checks running into the thousands of dollars without demanding the money in their accounts to cover them; reports that some congressmen had traded in their official office stamp allowance for cash at the House post office. The post office scandal produced the indictment of one of the most powerful men in Congress, Dan Rostenkowski, the burly Chicago pol who chaired the House Ways and Means Committee. Rostenkowski's legal troubles literally turned him into a poster boy for the term limits movement. Republicans, led by Newt Gingrich, had done much to amplify those scandals and as a result to undermine public confidence in the institution, confident that the fallout would harm Democrats much more than themselves. But the cynicism toward Washington, expressed in everything from focus groups of voters to the opening monologues of Leno and Letterman, permeated the campaign-year atmosphere like a morning fog on the freeway, threatening to engulf Republicans and Democrats alike in a major pileup.

"The American electorate is angry, self-absorbed and politically unanchored," the Times Mirror Center for The People & The Press reported in a major survey issued in September of 1994. "Thousands of interviews with American voters this summer find no clear direction in the public's political thinking other than frustration with the current system and an eager responsiveness to alternative political solutions and appeals." The report went on to warn that the "discontent with Washington that gained momentum in the late 1980s is even greater now than it was in 1992." A computer bulletin board message sent to Perot followers earlier in the summer gave a more pungent taste of what awaited the politicians in the fall. The Internet message read: "Never give in, never give in, never, never, never!!! We will remember in November!!! Oh yes, we will remember!!!"

Equally powerful was a parallel current of anger toward big government and a noticeable tilt toward the right among voters who saw the rising crime and illegitimacy, declining schools, and movies and rap lyrics saturated with sex and violence as symptoms of a broader breakdown in traditional values that threatened not on y their own families but society at large. These social concerns, rather than the economic anxieties that dominated the campaign of 1992, stood at record levels, and the Times Mirror Center reported voter attitudes "punctuated by increased indifference to the problems of blacks and poor people" along with growing "resentment toward immigrants." The Republican National Committee conducted a massive survey of Republicans in 1993 and found that 93 percent believed the federal government "no longer represents the intent of the Founding Fathers." Even more startling was another finding, which showed that 63 percent of Republicans saw the government as "an adversary to be avoided rather than a positive force for helping people solve their problems."

All the dots stood out in bas-relief on the canvasses of political forecasters. The only trouble was, no one knew quite how to connect them. Would they line up to topple incumbents of both parties in a collective gesture of anti-incumbency? Would they strike principally at the Democrats who now held both the White House and Congress? Or, might the vibrations of disaffection shake, but not fundamentally upend, the status quo? The Kentucky and Oklahoma special elections suggested the answer to the riddle: The Republicans were coming back. The real questions were how far and how last.

REBUILDING THE PARTY

Hindsight is the most reliable lens of all for viewing American politics, for, as the old saying goes, "The only certainty of political campaigns is surprise." In the haze of summer 1994, most experts were cautious with their predictions; in retrospect, what should have been clear by then was the degree to which the Republicans had rejuvenated themselves after the demoralizing defeat of 1992, recast themselves once again as the guardians of conservatism, restored a sense of unity and purpose, and begun to think anew of becoming the majority party in America. That alone was not enough to guarantee a majority in the fall, but it represented a considerable first step.

Many people could claim part of the credit for the GOP's revival, including Bill Clinton himself, who doubtless would have refused the honor. But three people stood above all the others: Newt Gingrich, Bob Dole, and Haley Barbour. Each had contributed, at key moments in 1993 and 1994, the combination of leadership and discipline essential to the success of a political party. All shared a belief that the Republicans once again had to stand for the conservative principles that had defined the Reagan presidency. But they were equally united in the strategy of opposing Clinton at every turn and finding legislative vehicles to restore their connections to their conservative, grassroots supporters.

Barbour was the least well known of the trio, but no less indispensable to the party's resurrection than Gingrich or Dole. A good-natured, wisecracking Mississippian with a rich southern drawl, Barbour, with the exception of a losing run for the Senate in 1982, had spent his career as a Republican operative. He worked in Richard Nixon's campaign in 1968, directed the Mississippi Republican Party in the 1970s, attached himself to John B. Connally's failed presidential campaign in 1980, served as political director in the Reagan White House from 1985 to 1986, and acted as a troubleshooter for the Bush campaign in 1938. After that he settled into a comfortable life as a Washington lobbyist and political commentator.

Barbour looked deceptively like an aging southern fraternity boy, all lacquered hair and calculated bonhomie. But he had firm ideas about the road to revival, a keen strategic sense of how to implement them, and a knack for putting them in language voters understood. "Compromising with the Democrats," he once said, "is like paying the cannibals to eat you last." With Bush's defeat, he blossomed into one of the party's most effective chairmen, ranking with Ray Bliss, who guided the party back to life after Barry Goldwater's defeat in 1964, and William Brock the former Tennessee senator who led the party during major victories after the Watergate debacle of 1974 end Jimmy Carter's victory over Gerald Ford in 1976. Barbour had been known mostly as a self-deprecating, nuts-and-bolts operative. But within days of Clinton's victory in 1992, another Barbour began to emerge, a philosophical hard-liner interested in ideas and public policy and determined to steer the party back to the principles that were at the heart of Reagan's successes in 1980 and 1984. To Barbour, the lesson of 1992 was clear: Bush had foolishly reneged on his "no new taxes" pledge, tacked toward the center on other domestic policies, and blurred the distinctions between Republicans and Democrats. Barbour told Republican governors at a meeting in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, "Our problem was the people felt we had repudiated our own principles by not acting in accordance with them." Shortly after Clinton's inauguration, Barbour was elected chairman of the Republican National Committee in a five-way contest.

Barbour wanted to reenergize the party's conservative coalition. He wanted to polarize the debate in Washington and the electorate in the country along conservative-liberal lines. He wanted to reestablish Republicans as the party of lower taxes and smaller government. And he wanted to find a common enemy around which Republicans and independents could unite. That enemy was the federal government. "We've got to quit being so Washington-oriented," he told the Republican officials in his first speech as chairman.

He believed in the power of ideas and the importance of a consistent message, and he began to build an infrastructure to meld the two into a powerful weapon that would, if nothing else, recharge the energies of Republican true believers who had gone flat in the final years of the Bush presidency. He hired a first-rate staff that included Chief of Staff Scott Reed, a former adviser to Jack Kemp; Charles Greener, part of a family of Republican operatives, as communications director; and Don Fierce, his former business partner, to act as a liaison with congressional leaders and grassroots organizations. He rapidly built a communications empire that included a think sank, a glossy magazine, and a weekly television program (housed in state-of-the-art facilities paid for with a $2.5 million donation from the Amway Corporation) in which he acted as the genial host serving up powder-puff questions to Republican officials. To influence political insiders, he papered Washington with faxes and dispensed his wisdom through "Haley's Comments," attacking Clinton every time the President even glanced to his left. Barbour began clubbing Clinton the day the President delivered his economic plan before a joint session of Congress. The plan called for $500 billion in deficit reduction through a combination of spending cuts, increased taxes on the rich, and a broad-based energy tax. "Clinton ran on the promise to "put people first,'" Barbour said. "Tonight his plan is to put government first." As much as anything, Barbour displayed a willingness to attack Clinton even when it appeared risky to do so. "We just hammered him," Barbour said of Clinton. "I'll be honest. I had not anticipated we'd be able to go on the offensive that early, because Presidents get honeymoons, and I knew it was not the right thing to do to go out and attack him on personal grounds or anything like that. I actually thought he would move in his early phases like a new Democrat. He didn't."

The RNC also fanned the prairie fire of talk radio programs, providing talk shows with background information, RNC talking points, and encouragement to bash the Democrats. Talk radio hosts provided Americans with an outlet for their frustration, and, like field commanders, often directed the citizen assaults that gridlocked switchboards at the Capitol or the White House. No medium had a greater effect on establishing the climate of the 1994 elections than talk radio, and no one played a more prominent role in stirring up conservatives than the cherubic but devastating Rush Limbaugh, the irreverent and indomitable conservative who fused the sensibilities of Ed Meese and John Belushi into three hours of relentless Clinton-bashing every day. Limbaugh's program--a mixture of conservative monologue and antic satire, or as he calls it, "America the way it ought to be--"broadcast on 660 stations, reaching some twenty million listeners every week, mare than four million at any given time. Before the inaugural reviewing stand had been dismantled out front of the White House, Limbaugh had begun to batter the new administration as the reincarnation of the flower children of the 1960s.

Barbour's RNC reinforced that angry message to the Republican core constituency through a blizzard of direct mail to potential donors, and in the process rebuilt the party's fund-raising base, which had atrophied after twelve years of Republican control of the White House. To run the finance department, Barbour stole Albert Mitchler, a great bear of a man with a walrus mustache, from Senator Phil Gramm and the National Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee. At the RNC, Mitchler instantly quadrupled the number of direct mail appeals to 1.2 million a week and revved up the RNC's telemarketing operation-and the money began to pour in. From the beginning, the message of the fund-raising appeals was, as Scott Reed put it, "red meat. . . one hundred percent anti-Clinton." Positive appeals bombed, reducing the RNC strategy to a mantra of, as Mitchler described it, "Clinton bad, Republican good." One letter said, "In Bill Clinton's eyes, if you worked hard and succeeded--you're the enemy." Another attacked the Clintons for supporting "far-out social concepts of diversity, multi-culturism and political correctness." The responses built throughout 1993 and 1994; one day, about a month before the election, the postal service delivered 134,000 contribution letters to the RNC offices.

As he wooed conservative contributors, Barbour also stroked the conservative activists, from gun owners and antitax protesters to westerners inflamed over Clinton's proposal to increase fees for grazing on public lands. He was particularly solicitous of the religious conservatives, who had been roundly criticized in some quarters for turning the 1992 national convention in Houston into a public display of intolerance. Barbour believed Christian conservatives represented a critical constituency, and he looked for opportunities to display his fealty to them. When Representative Vic Fazio of California, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, attacked religious conservatives in the summer of 1994, Barbour quickly rushed to their defense. "We wanted Christians to know that we weren't going to run from them," said the RNC's Don Fierce. But first, Barbour called Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, the movement's best-known leaders, and asked them to hold their fire. Republican leaders did not want either Falwell or Robertson, both divisive figures, to respond personally to the attacks. They wanted this fight to be Republicans against Democrats, not Democrats against two evangelical lightning rods.

Bob Dole provided a different kind of boost to the Republicans in 1993, with cutting humor, relentless partisanship, and the tactical skills that made him the foremost legislative leader of his time. Clinton had barely awakened in Little Rock on the morning after his election when Dole, noting that 57 percent of the voters had preferred someone other than Clinton as President, declared that he would be the representative in Washington of that anti-Clinton majority coalition. With Bush fallen, Dole became the party's de facto leader and most visible foil to a White House that sometimes seemed to tack adult supervision. Dole proved to be both the principal spokesman for the opposition and an experienced, tenacious, legislative adversary at a time when the party desperately needed leadership.

In the spring of 1993, Clinton attempted to push his economic stimulus through the Senate with a set of parliamentary maneuvers that prevented Republicans even from offering amendments. Devised by Robert Byrd, the white-haired Democratic philosopher-tactician who had served in the Senate since 1958, the rules of debate outraged Republican moderates who had sent signals of possible compromise to the White House. Dole immediately mounted a filibuster against the stimulus package, a smell but symbolic piece of Clinton's overall economic plan. Almost instantly the partisan lines hardened like epoxy on a piece of wood. Although Democrats held a majority in the Senate, Clinton could not move without sixty votes to choke off the filibuster. Clinton sought a way out of the legislative stalemate, but Dole refused to budge. Yielding to the obvious, Clinton eventually withdrew the package, handing the Republicans not just a substantive victory but a huge psychological boost: The GOP had drawn first blood.

Dole's leadership on the stimulus fight not only earned him the gratitude of Republicans desperate for any scrap of self-assurance, but vaulted him atop the rapidly growing field of possible challengers to Clinton in 1996. That was an astonishing reversal in fortunes for a man whose two previous presidential campaigns were remembered only for ineptitude. Dole was so convinced that his White House hopes had expired that he gave serious thought to retiring from the Senate in 1992. Now he was toasted by Republicans as a genuine war here who embodied the American Dream. Once seen as a wily but often mean-spirited political hatchetman, he now drew the approval of columnists who dubbed him a mature statesman. With one eye on the presidency and another on a Senate Republican caucus growing steadily more conservative, Dole continued to pull back farther and farther from a posture of potential cooperation with the White House into outright and total opposition. Nowhere was that shift more significant--nor more politically inspired--than in Dole's stance on Clinton's health care program: He began by promising to work with the administration and ended upleading a unified Republican opposition that helped kill the plan and cripple Clinton and the Democrats.

Throughout 1993 and 1994, Republicans offered a host of alternatives to the Clinton agenda, from the budget to health care to welfare reform. But the most effective tool leaders like Barbour and Dole found in rebuilding the Republican Party and energizing their conservative constituencies was the politics of "no"--"no" to Clinton, "no" to the Democrats, and "no" to bipartisanship. Clinton provided Republicans a common target, and the Republicans gave the antigovernment forces in the country a vehicle for their protests.

A PLAN OF ATTACK

Whatever contributions Dole and Barbour made to the revitalization of the Republican Party, no one played a more central role in shaping the election of 1994 than Newt Gingrich. Gingrich represented a paradoxical--and controversial--figure in Washington. The bulky, white-thatched Georgia congressman was a mercurial, impulsive personality; a brilliant visionary one moment, a petulant, uncontrollable four-year-old the next.

Gingrich had built his career by tearing down--Democrats, Washington, Congress itself. And yet, no Republican had done more to instill a sense of unity and purpose in his party. Nor had anyone preached more tirelessly the importance of Republicans offering the American people a positive blueprint of how conservatives would govern if given power. Looking ahead to the 1996 elections during the summer of 1993, Gingrich told us,

There are two sentences that describe all of modern American political history from 1968 to the present: The Democrats under Johnson and McGovern went too far to the left and never came back; [and] the Republicans rejected successful y for a quarter of a century every effort of the American people to make them a majority. Now a Republican Party which doesn't communicate its vision and its beliefs in a hundred-day program, and a Republican Party which doesn't campaign on what it serious y intends to do, and a Republican Party which doesn't arrive in office in the House, the Senate and the White House and ram through in the first one hundred days exactly what it promised, is a Republican Party that will just continue the stasis of American politics.

A few weeks after the Republican victory in Kentucky, Gingrich summoned House Republican leaders to Room H-227 in the Capitol, which sits along a corridor closed to tourists a few steps off the huge, central Rotunda. Like many rooms in the Capitol, H-227 combined the ornate and the ordinary, as gilded mirrors, a marble fireplace, and intricate, hand-painted ceilings coexisted with utilitarian conference tables laid end to end and covered by a dingy, felt tablecloth that would have been an embarrassment even in a church basement. A few weeks earlier, buoyed by the Lewis victory, Gingrich had asked his closest political adviser, Joseph Gaylord, to prepare a battle plan for the fall campaign, one that described everything that Republicans would have to do to turn the fall elections into the watershed Gingrich believed they could be. Now they were prepared to share with their colleagues the scope of the challenge ahead.

Gingrich had been planning for a Republican majority for two decades. Elected to Congress in 1978, he came to Washington a month before his swearing-in to meet with Guy Vander Jagt, then a Michigan congressman and chairman of the NRCC. For three hours, the brash freshman-to-be bombarded Vander Jagt with ideas, hoping to convince him that the NRCC needed a committee to plot the path to majority status. "In those three hours, he absolutely boggled my mind," Vander Jagt said. "Totally boggled my mind. I said, `I'll tell you what, I'll make you the chairman of the NRCC task force to plan for a Republican majority.' I'm not sure anybody could be that brash. skipped him over 155 sitting Republicans to do it."

Gaylord, a tall, slender, perpetually tanned operative, drafted the outlines of a memo on a pair of long plane rides between Washington and Alaska, where he was conducting a campaign training workshop for the party, and with Gingrich's help had revised it several times since. Like Gingrich, Gaylord was an enduring optimist about the party's aspirations to become the majority in the House, but as the director of the NRCC in-the mid-1980s had seen those hopes--and his own predictions--constantly frustrated. He was convinced 1994 would be different, and the cover of his twenty-page memo underscored just how confident he felt. In capital letters, the document's cover said: "The Plan: Create a Solid GOP Majority in the House of Representatives of 231 members." The memo described with remarkable prescience the components needed to reach the target. At the time, the conventional wisdom in Washington projected a Republican gain of about 20 to 25 seats, enough to put the Republicans around 200, but still short of the 218 needed for a majority. Gaylord's plan envisioned a 51-seat gain (although 7 of those seats were to come from party switches by Democrats after the election), which turned out to be the most accurate forecast of the year.

Among those in the room that day were Jim Nussle of Iowa, a young House Republican who was part of Gingrich's informal team of activists. He remembers being overwhelmed by what Gaylord and Gingrich put before the group--not simply the notion that Republicans might actually be able to win a majority in November, but what it would take to get there. Nussle was a believer, but he knew what Gaylord had laid out would require more than the energy of a dozen or so committed activists. "Getting one hundred eighty [people] to help you paint the fence was another task entirely," he said. Gaylord recommended task forces for practically everything: message, media, training, money. But at its heart, the plan described three broad challenges. The first called for Republicans to develop a positive governing agenda and to communicate their vision in language voters could understand. The second called for derailing Clinton's agenda for the rest of the year and then framing the election around his failures as President. "We must maximize Clinton's weaknesses and turn '94 into a referendum on his policies," the memo stated. The third challenge underscored the critical importance of money and of finding the means to assure that no viable Republican candidate lost because of lack of resources. The first part became the House Republican Contract With America; the second produced a legislative strategy to guarantee that Clinton would receive no political boost from the final months of the 103rd Congress; and the third triggered an unprecedented effort to raise and dispense money.

Copyright © 1996 Dan Balz and Ronald Brownstein. All rights reserved.


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