Sunday, January 15, 2006

From Cause to Corruption: The Three Steps that Face House Republicans

roy blunt
It is entirely true, as my friend Pat Buchanan has written, that politics usually follows three steps. First, their practitioners are idealistic, almost self-sacrificial which leads to initial success. Then, after initial success, the players become mechanized, bureaucratized similar to businesses. Finally, if allowed to proceed without reform, they can become involved in rackets. Not always but often. From cause to business to racket. That’s certainly what has happened to the once vaunted civil rights movement. It started with idealism and sacrifice: Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr. Then, after notable sacrifice and even assassination, it devolved into a business: the procedures followed by Operation PUSH and others to negotiate with and win concessions from business. I place my own Commerce department government service a well-meaning but unintended misstep. It invented minority set-asides for government contracts which I prescribed to last 10 years at most. Foolish me: It proved to be of enormous financial assistance to minority business but also helped turn a cause into a business. In retrospect I’m not sure it was a good idea. For these and other reasons, much of professional civil rights agitation has become a racket: the field is now occupied by Al Sharpton and his hustler colleagues. All because there is little or no self-purification of the cause after its initial successes.

So it was with the Democratic party beginning in its modern phase, with the presidential election of 1932. FDR was more business than cause-directed but endowed with eloquence he spurred a cause—leading to the building of a modified corporate welfare state which I would argue (as one who saw the depression first hand) was a good thing, protecting the little guy from being wiped out. Then liberalism became a business, under people like Hubert Humphrey: nothing wrong with that, but it widened to embrace more federal initiatives each year. Finally, it became what liberalism is now: a racket. The entire bulwark of the Democratic party is motivated by a cultural agenda: abortion, permissiveness, indulgence. At the Alito hearings you saw the Democrats utilizing a variety of issues to defeat him but non-abortion issues were subterfuge, the main issue being abortion. This happened because abortion was taken out of the arena of state politics where it belonged to a court fiat where it did not belong (the fact that this was done by Harry Blackmun, a Nixon appointee, was purely accidental). Liberalism has become a racket where proponents know full well that the Roe decision was wretched law (Archibald Cox has acknowledged that and none other than Jimmy Carter has said as much).

The Democratic leadership of the House which it ran for 40 years became very much a racket, too. The last vestige of the old Democratic days faded with the death of Tip O’Neill and became, under the kindly, somewhat scholarly but ineffective Tom Foley, a racket run by majority leader Tony Coehlo (D-Calif.) who sent his minons out to be lobbyists and raked in the cash. A general laxity spread throughout the chamber, encouraging 355 members of the 435--Republicans and Democrats--to draw over-drafts at the House bank. The laxity winnowed out some outstanding people like Vin Weber of Minnesota, one of the most creative House Republicans who could easily have been a future Speaker, being returned to private life.

Democrats haven’t restructured liberalism (or their organization of the House either) sufficiently from the racket stage, which worries me a good deal. This nation should not have a one-party government for long: one party, even my Republican one, grows weak, discordant and quarrelsome and it is time another party takes over. What worries me is that I don’t see a Democrat on the horizon who can muster the inner strength to match what Bush is doing in the presidency. (Well, maybe I can: believe it or not, it just could be Hillary but I wouldn’t want to see what happens if and when she takes a whack at it. She is trying to moderate her old strident stands on foreign and social policy. But I digress).

Looking at the House Republicans, it is clear that the three step process has been enacted there. The first step—cause—was created by Newt Gingrich (whom I knew as a back bencher) and his colleagues who formed the Conservative Opportunity Society. House Republicans under Bob Michel were stuck on the second step: business. Michel did business with Tip O’Neill and loved the perks that came to him as a compliant semi-ally. Gingrich, whom a senior congressman friend once described to me as half genius and half crazy changed all that. He drew around him very bright people who formulated the cause which was the Contract with America and won the majority in 1994. The cause was a shining one for a few years; then the leaders fell out with Gingrich (for good reason: he was a visionary—the genius part—but with everything of equal priority—the nutty part; also there came personal excesses later on: he was fooling around with someone on his staff who would become wife number 3).

Gingrich was forced to step down. Then there came a kind of collective guilt. Everybody knew Newt had to go but they didn’t like the gang that plotted his assassination. It was weird: people happy the king was killed but didn’t want to be associated with those who did the dirty deed. They didn’t want Brutus to be elected Speaker after killing Caesar. So to get Gingrich’s replacement, there was a good deal of stumbling around. Bob Livingston was supposed to be the successor and didn’t stab Gingrich particularly but it turned out he had had number of personal indiscretions; good thing this overruled him because he’d begin as Bob Livingston & Co which would turn into a genuine Louisiana racket racket in short order.

Tom DeLay was involved in trying to get rid of Gingrich so he was disqualified from being Speaker. Dick Armey was, too but after he was reelected majority leader they found out he lied about which there was much bitterness. In desperation, they turned to Denny Hastert, DeLay’s chief deputy. I happen to have known Hastert somewhat not only because he came from Illinois but l because as a high school teacher of history and wrestling coach he would take a summer seminar for high school teachers at Loyola in Chicago (the Taft Seminar) at which I was one of several visiting lecturers (my topic was cause politics). Frankly, few in the House saw in Denny Hastert a man of vision and crackling energy required to succeed Gingrich but, everybody was tired of Gingrich’s having four brilliant ideas before breakfast even if they didn’t want to think of how he was assassinated. They could at least say Hastert was “rock-solid” with no emotional difficulties and after Gingrich and Livingston, that was important. Besides with everybody either wrapped up with women or trying to hide the fact that they stabbed Newt to death, it was refreshing to have good old comfortable Denny who liked everybody and whom everybody liked to take over.

With Hastert the kindly laissez faire chairman of the board type not unlike the Dems’ Tom Foley, Armey (who lost his clout for lying) was succeeded as majority leader by a DeLay, an energetic political entrepreneur surrounded by acolytes who worked closely with him for a short time and left him to cash in on their association with him on K street. Frankly, this is what happened all the time during the Democratic control of the House: from Sam Rayburn to John MacCormack to Carl Albert to Tip O’Neill and the media nor reformers didn’t care. And, frankly, I can understand why DeLay wanted K street to be populated by his former staffers and friends: rotation is required. Why should lobbyists who fought the Republicans during the old days go on earning big bucks and contributing to Democrats who sought to gut Republicans when deserving Republican ex-staffers wanted jobs? I’m practical enough to understand that. Yet, while it wasn’t fatal it proved to be phase two or the business step. If things stayed there, it wouldn’t be bad. But they rarely do.

Unlike his public persona, DeLay was never a cause directed politician with a unified philosophy (though he did feel strongly about Terri Schaivo) and became instead the best damned majority leader the House has seen since John MacCormack—rewarding friends, putting the heads of the undecided members in a vise and squeezing, punishing enemies, promising malcontents fund-raising help because he separated ideology from pure politics. Holding the voting open for hours to pass the outlandish prescription drug bill was his doing. He was a happy enforcer, lopping off heads and making hand-signals on the floor that prompted voting turn-arounds. He was largely unconcerned with principle; give him the order and he’d enforce it. Democrats were stunned and, frankly in secret admiration, of DeLay’s skills. It didn’t seem to matter what the issue was: he could enforce it in a narrowly-run chamber. To do that, though, he had to set philosophical commitment aside ergo his statement that the Republicans have cut all the fat out of the 2004 budget, an outrageous absurdity, which earned ridicule on the late-late shows. Still, he didn’t have either strange ideas ala Gingrich and no strange girlfriends. Everybody thought that was great.

Then as it often happens with enforcers who eschew principle, DeLay & Co. which became a business imperceptibly turned into a racket: with Abramoff, Scanlon and others and DeLay going to Scotland on golfing trips paid for by a wink-wink “foundation.” The DeLay trial in Houston about money laundering is bogus, initiated by a supremely partisan prosecutor, but the Abramoff thing is not bogus.

House Republicans now have an opportunity to move it back to a cause. To become a cause the GOP leadership has to hit the sawdust trail, resolve to cut spending, even try to instill some spending limits to the White House (very difficult) even if DeLay-like efficiency is sacrificed to make room for members’ consciences. That’s not remotely the job Hastert’s equipped for or can do. He’s getting along in age anyhow and his diabetes has him in tow. The rebirth of a cause-directed House GOP must start with the new majority leader. At the outset, one candidates is not auspicious, one is a sure ringer to keep the old system and one is promising. Start off with Roy Blunt of Missouri. Blunt, an evangelical but married, second-time, to a lobbyist, has the makings of one who could return the Republicans to idealism and be cause-directed. His son is governor of Missouri. Blunt has also the makings of a phase two businessman in him: Roy Blunt & Co. By and large, I’d skip over him and if he made it, I would hold my breath.

The second challenger is John Boehner of Ohio, a wily operator, a Catholic, low voltage on principle but with 500,000 watts of ambition. Anybody who comes from Ohio these days, with the governor, Bob Taft lucky he’s not in jail, and two senators indecisive and forgettable, comes across as a opportunist at best and Boehner fits right in. One of Gingrich’s first lieutenants who helped craft the Contract, he also crafted the No Child Left Behind act and then pivoted to join the conspiracy against Gingrich. He resembles those in the old Kremlin who lived and died by the sword. Once chairman of the House Republican conference, he was ousted after Armey got back as majority leader by lying about his lack of involvement in the conspiracy to defeat Gingrich—and the caucus finding out too late about Armey decided it could take it out on at least one opportunist and picked Boehner. Boehner then orchestrated a come-back rather like Deng did after being purged by Mao. If he were elected majority leader, I would imagine that Boehner would set up shop as Boehner & Co. and quickly glide down a slippery slope to racket. Looking at Boehner, a darkly handsome Cassius, you can almost smell racket.

A third candidate who just appeared is John Shadegg of Arizona, Episcopalian, son of the man who managed Barry Goldwater’s successful Senate campaign which unseated the Senate majority leader. Shadegg fits the bill as cause-directed who in a poll of House Republican staffers placed high on the list of those with backbone. A maverick when it’s called for, he challenged his leadership to cut the budget and he was punished by being denied Ways and Means. The fact that neither Blunt or Boehner have it wrapped up has led to Shadegg. He’s my choice—and I’m enthusiastic. In this three step process from cause to corruption, Shadegg would be cause-directed and would probably never think of setting up Shadegg & Co. He’s what the House GOP sorely needs now.

Sorry to go on so long.

1 comment:

  1. Tom: Thanks for your splendid analysis and thoughtful insights into movements in general and the House of Representatives in Pariticular.

    I strongly agree that one party should not be in control too long. It would be nice if the control would switch every two or four years. It would keep everyone--or almost everyone--honest.
    Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. It is too bad but that is life.