Conservative Collapse 

From Gingrich to Lungren, the right is routed

Wednesday, Nov 11 1998
Photo: AP/Wide World
I. The Republicans: Down and Out on Capitol Hill

The revolution is over.

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While last week's election may have been a knock in the head to the Republican Party generally, it was a dagger through the heart of the Republican right. As moderate GOP governors swept to victory all across America, hard-right GOP governors and gubernatorial candidates - Alabama's Fob James, South Carolina's David Beasley and our very own Dan Lungren - were going down in states long regarded as Republican strongholds.

It was the congressional right, however, that suffered the gravest defeats over the past week. Not only did they lose their national leader when Newt Gingrich was shoved from the speakership, but they then lost the brutish and short battle to elect his successor. Christopher Cox, the five-term Republican congressman from Newport Beach who waged a two-day campaign for the post, is the darling of the party's economic right. A former Reagan White House lawyer who advised supply-side maniac Arthur Laffer during his quixotic 1986 Senate campaign, Cox was endorsed by The Wall Street Journal for the speakership even as Louisiana's Bob Livingston, the wheeling-dealing chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, was cajoling and, apparently, threatening his colleagues in a successful attempt to lock down their votes.

Livingston is a Southern conservative like Gingrich - but he's not a movement conservative like Cox. During Clinton's first term, according to the indices compiled by The Almanac of American Politics, Livingston aligned himself with the more liberal position on 22 percent of key votes, while Cox voted that way just 3 percent of the time.

When historians look back on the period of the Gingrich speakership, I suspect they will view these years as a period of self-destructive excess on the right, much as they view the late '60s and early '70s as a time of self-induced implosion on the left. Both the late-'60s left and the mid-'90s right began by espousing broadly popular causes - respectively, opposition to the Vietnam War and opposition to welfare - but a sense of maddened rectitude soon pushed them to the fringes of the political spectrum. Just as the '60s left in its Weatherman period announced that its mission was to wage an insurrection against established society, the '90s right moved to smash the state by closing down the federal government, made private morality a public matter by the prominence it gave to the abortion issue and the Lewinsky affair, and otherwise made clear that it, too, was spoiling for a civil war that would purify America.

On both the Weather-left and the Gingrich-right, intensity substituted for breadth of support, and each group's apostles came to dwell within a hall of mirrors that led them to believe their strength was far beyond what the numbers actually were. At their fringes, both movements had their mad bombers, though the right's - Timothy McVeigh - was a hundredfold more deadly than anyone out of the left.

Now, in the wake of last week's electoral repudiation, Republicans are scurrying madly away from the politics of jihad that they've practiced for the past four years. Problem is, their respectable, mainstream-right agenda looks shaky as well. Post-revolutionary Speaker Livingston still affirms the centrality of tax cuts to any Republican plan of government, but cutting taxes didn't rank all that high in any of Tuesday's exit polls, which showed the electorate far more concerned about education, and almost equally concerned about Social Security and the economy. In fact, by ending welfare, Republicans have inadvertently helped to rehabilitate government spending. (It no longer subsidizes loafers, you see.) The GOP's big winners this month weren't the anti-statist zealots of Congress, but Republican governors who had identified themselves with improving the public schools in their states.

And yet, the right is not going gently into the moderate night. Even as Gingrich was desperately trying to shore up his support within the Republican caucus last week, his colleagues from the party's neo-Puritan wing demanded that he pledge to push the impeachment proceedings with renewed vigor. GOP presidential hopeful Steve Forbes complained that the reason for last week's Republican reversals was their reticence in going after Clinton. These are positions that are not simply out of step with the American public, but on another planet altogether.

Indeed, the Republicans now running to replace Gingrich's praetorian guard may be cosmetically correct (they include one female and one black - Congress' only black Republican), but all of them stand well to the right of the GOP's center-right govs. Nor, if Monday's hearings are any indication, do the congressional Republicans seem to know how to derail the impeachment proceedings. Gingrich is gone, but Gingrichism - the Democrats can only hope - still lives.

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