Strange Bedfellow

Bill Paxon’s Mysterious Epiphany

A replaceable man falls on his sword.

Briefly displacing Monica Lewinsky as Topic A last week was a news flash from Capitol Hill. Bill Paxon, a well-scrubbed, 43-year-old Republican representative from Buffalo, N.Y., was retiring. This came as a shock, because Paxon was viewed as an ambitious fellow with a long career ahead of him. Though he had been displaced from his position in the House Republican leadership as punishment for his role in the failed coup against Speaker Newt Gingrich last July, he remained popular with his colleagues. As recently as a few days before his withdrawal, Paxon had been busy canvassing support for a challenge to Dick Armey for the post of majority leader. But instead of announcing his candidacy for a job that would put him in line to become speaker of the House, Paxon pledged never to run for anything–not even dogcatcher–again. Like his wife Susan Molinari, who quit last year to become a news anchor on CBS, he said his move was prompted by a desire to spend more time with his family.

Despite the eagerness of the Sunday-morning pundits to embrace it, the official story does not begin to add up. A purely political creature, Paxon has spent his entire adult life in two jobs: New York state assemblyman and member of Congress. Here he was giving up his life’s work, with no idea of what he would do instead, because of an epiphany that seemed totally out of character. His transformation from someone desperate to spend more time with his colleagues and less with his family to someone desperate to spend none with his colleagues and all with his family happened within days. And even if you take his explanation at face value, why would Paxon rule out seeking elective office ever again, even after his daughter was in college?

The predictable result has been a plague of rumors, all nasty and none very plausible. The only remotely convincing interpretation is that Paxon knew but was not willing to admit publicly that he could not defeat Armey and that, without a path forward, he lost heart. Beltway outsiders might wonder why any of this even matters. Paxon is the world’s most replaceable man–a lightweight operator of fungible principles, not especially conservative, not especially moderate, and with no great or special political talent. He will be forgotten in months, if not minutes. What is significant about the episode, and about the haze of innuendo surrounding it, is the way it epitomizes what the Republican House has become. In the past year, the House side of the Capitol has become not only an extraordinarily vicious environment but also an entirely unproductive and unsatisfying one. Paxon’s hasty departure and whatever invisible machinations lie behind it show that the devil makes work for idle hands. They also show the total intellectual and political exhaustion of the Republican revolution of 1994.

For over a year, the only real news coming out of the Republican caucus has been gossip about internecine warfare, tales about coups and countercoups, ambition, rebellion, and retribution. The last month has been consumed with especially intense jockeying and speculation about the leadership hierarchy. Would Paxon challenge Armey for the majority leader’s job (in an election that is nearly a year off)? What would that mean for the eventual succession to the speakership should Gingrich quit to run for president? Shortly before Paxon announced his retirement, Rep. Bob Livingston, R-La., decided that instead of stepping down to become a fat-cat lobbyist, he would hang around in the hope of winning the speaker’s job after Gingrich leaves. That fueled more kibitzing. Could Armey conciliate the angry and disappointed class of ‘94? What would Tom DeLay do? Would there be another attempt to overthrow Gingrich?

In short, the Republican House has deteriorated into a sub-Shakespearean Elizabethan revenge drama. This is hardly surprising. Where there is no strong leader, no unifying sense of purpose, and no rule of law, political chaos tends to ensue, as surely in the Longworth Building as in Rwanda or the former Yugoslavia. But the fratricidal House is an amazing change from the heady days of early 1995. Today’s policy vacuum makes the gimmicky Contract With America look like Lenin’s What Is to Be Done? Where there was unity and esprit de corps, there is now factionalism and demoralization. How did the Republican revolution turn so quickly into a Brooks Bros. version of Lord of the Flies?

I think there are two important causes. The first is structural. When he became speaker, Gingrich tossed out the age-old House rules. He placed a term limit of eight years on himself as speaker and a limit of six years on committee chairs. In choosing chairs, he suspended seniority. For example, Gingrich bypassed four more senior members to make Livingston chairman of House Appropriations. This transformed the political culture of the House. Advancement no longer had to be slow and steady. Shake-ups were to be expected. Careers could take off and fizzle suddenly. The result was a lot of scheming by people such as Paxon who suddenly had an opportunity to get ahead quickly.

The second explanation has to do with the political trajectory of the last few years. The Gingrich Congress has paid a high price for overinterpreting its 1994 mandate. Gingrich almost lost his job, and though the GOP kept control of Congress in 1996, its leaders have abandoned both the rhetoric and substance of anti-government radicalism. Lately, they’ve been hanging back and venturing little. In 1998, Congress has only 89 scheduled workdays; the annual average since 1987 is 140. Gingrich now fears controversy the way a convalescent fears a draft. This means that all the issues that conservatives care most about–banning affirmative action, cutting taxes, pushing school choice–remain on indefinite hold. The demagogic gimmicks get ever more desperate and empty. Their latest is to fix a date for abolition of the tax code–the idea being that it would force sweeping reform (details to follow).

Gone, perhaps for good, is Gingrich’s “visionary” rhetoric. Replacing it is a litany of Boy Scout-scale good deeds reminiscent of nothing so much as the pointillist Clinton agenda Republicans mocked so sneeringly around 1996. In his most recent speech, Gingrich boasted about building F-22s in his district and improving the water quality of the Chattahoochee River. He also proposed new ideas: giving cell phones to teachers and–I kid you not–screening Native Americans for diabetes. The main business in Congress this week was dividing up $173 billion in transportation goodies.

In a way, the collapse of conservative principles in Congress only heightens the mystery of why Bill Paxon quit. The post-revolutionary Republican Congress is an environment in which he might well have flourished, and where he ought to have felt very much at home.