Ballot Box

Republicans Behaving Badly


Since Sept. 11, most of official Washington has been making a genuine and impressive effort at wartime unity. President George W. Bush hugs Democrats instead of shoving them. He declined to campaign or raise funds for GOP candidates running in Tuesday’s election. The Democratic leaders in Congress, Tom Daschle and Richard Gephardt, have reciprocated Bush’s affection, doing their utmost to build and maintain unified support for the war effort. Senate Republicans showed convincing bipartisan spirit, too, when they voted with Democrats in favor of a bill to federalize airport security.  

In fact, there has only been one glaring exception to this new spirit of comity—the attitude and behavior of the House Republicans. Despite the ostensible goodwill of House Speaker Dennis Hastert, the caucus he manages has for the most part been as truculent and ideological as ever. Its tone has been set not by the affable Hastert but by Newt Gingrich’s mean-spirited Texan epigones: House Majority Leader Dick Armey and Whip Tom DeLay.

The unwillingness of the House GOP to put partisanship aside was evident within days of the terrorist attack, when Rep. Bill Thomas, R-Calif., the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, offered as his response a bill to cut capital gains taxes again. That idea fell by the wayside, but there soon appeared lots of other “hitchhikers”—conservatives, mostly, hoping to bum a ride on the wartime caravan for their pet causes. Several House members demanded immediate passage of a bill that would open the Alaskan Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling. Rep. David Weldon, R-Fla., the congressman from Disney World, seized on the emergency appropriations bill as just another opportunity to ban the District of Columbia from extending health benefits to gay couples.

Such episodes might be dismissed as deviant outbursts were it not for the House’s blunt partisanship on two significant issues: airport security and an economic stimulus package. In early October, the Senate passed a bill that would federalize security at the nation’s airports under the control of the Justice Department by a vote of 100-0. House Republicans, by contrast to their Senate counterparts, were so incensed by this idea that they forgot to disguise their real reasons for objecting. As Dick Armey put it on Meet the Press, “What the Democrats are pushing for here is that Congress write a law that says everybody that is screening at the airports must be a federal employee and, thereby, a member of the union—federal union that happens also to be their most generous single contributor to their campaign.” That argument led the House to defeat the Senate bill on a nearly party-line vote and pass instead an alternative that attempts to preserve a version of the current system of private airport security.

What makes Armey’s posture on this issue an unseemly display of partisanship rather than a valid, substantive disagreement? One factor is the tendency he and his colleagues have to view it in partisan rather than in substantive terms. Thinking only of marginal political advantage, Armey charges his opponents with thinking the same way. But there’s no indication that Democrats ever thought about the airport security problem as a way of creating 30,000 money-giving unionized workers. Another factor is the knee-jerk reliance on pre-Sept. 11 ideology—federal workers always bad, private sector always good. Tom DeLay and others subsequently tried to construct a more substantive case, arguing that privatized security worked well in Europe and that federalizing it here wouldn’t take account of varying local conditions. But the very thinness of these arguments made clear that their real reason was the originally stated political one. If ever a problem demanded a “one-size-fits-all” solution, it’s airport security.

On the economic stimulus package, House Republicans displayed similar partisan reflexes. In late October, they passed by a two-vote margin a proposal described by Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill as a “show business” pander to big contributors. The bill, which would award huge retroactive tax breaks to certain corporations, has been roundly denounced by mainstream economists as an inefficient way to stimulate the economy. Here again, House Republicans acted out of the narrowest of political and ideological considerations rather than from any spirit of practicality or cooperation with the other side. Their instinct seemed to be to give whatever money was on the table away to Republican supporters as quickly as possible, before Democrats could give it to people who might actually need it.

As the World Trade Center attack recedes, this mentality only seems to be intensifying. According to a story in the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call, Republican strategists advising House Republicans are busy figuring out how best to attack Minority Leader Richard Gephardt. Though most of them acknowledge that he has been entirely cooperative with Bush on the war, they think Gephardt may be vulnerable because he was insufficiently supportive of military and intelligence budgets before Sept. 11. In other words, their notion of bipartisanship is to disingenuously attack the patriotism of the other side’s leader.

Perhaps I’m naive, but I don’t believe congressional Democrats and their strategists have been thinking about political advantage in such a naked and unprincipled way. Democrats in both houses have, with a single Berkeley-based exception, rallied around the president in support of the war effort, not just for political reasons but for patriotic ones. But instead of being grateful for such cooperation—far different from what Clinton got from the GOP during Bosnia, Haiti, and Kosovo—House Republicans have responded by looking for ways to pry Democrats loose from the president’s embrace. (They finally succeeded a bit in the case of the airport security bill, which represents Bush’s biggest departure from bipartisanship to date.) To the extent the House Republicans have a coherent political strategy these days, it appears to be using Bush as a wedge to batter the Democrats back into opposition. If they succeed in this objective, they may manage to both kill the unwelcome spirit of bipartisanship abroad in Washington and to blur responsibility for killing it.

All of which leaves only one question: Why are the House Republicans behaving in such an ugly way? What Armey and DeLay are doing is too politically unproductive to be explained by ordinary opportunism. On both the airport security and economic stimulus bills, House Republicans have voluntarily sided with a tiny echelon of corporate contributors over millions of potential Republican voters. This has led moderate conservatives to express concern that the GOP is handing easy issues to the Democrats for the 2002 election. Democrats joke that they must have a mole in the Republican leadership.

When politicians act in ways that are obviously counter to their own welfare, you have to look beyond self-interest for an explanation. In this case, I think the answer lies not merely in the conservative movement’s habit of extreme partisanship but in what Michael Kinsley calls its feeling of manifest destiny. Armey, DeLay, and their cadres believe themselves historically if not divinely ordained to prevail. In a sea of trimmers, such genuine conviction may seem admirable. But when true-believing plays itself out in an inability to accept the legitimacy or the good faith of one’s opponents, it isn’t admirable at all. The Republican refusal to recognize Bill Clinton as president, to consider Al Gore as a potential winner of the Florida recount, or to accept Sen. Jim Jeffords as an independent were all symptoms of this immaturity. The House Republican caucus is dominated by self-proclaimed revolutionaries who think they are predestined to win. When they lose, they think they have been cheated in some way. If those on the wrong side of history don’t return their ideological hostility, it suggests to them that their pockets are being picked.

That House Republicans have failed even to feign a spirit of wartime bipartisanship is simply the latest illustration of this political pathology. Most people in Washington, like most people around the country, are thinking more about nation than about party these days. Most GOP congressmen, on the other hand, remain unable to tell the difference.