Those who would blame conservative disappointments in Congress solely on a Republican failure of nerve are missing some pieces of the puzzle.
From the height of Republican ascendancy two years ago, how could things have fallen so far so fast? Conservative observers love to catalogue the horrors of the 105th Congress. Start with the personalities: A House Speaker, Newt Gingrich, who seems to have lost the ability to articulate a conservative agenda, the respect of congressional Republicans, and the interest of the American people; the Speaker's backstabbing subalterns in the House, who have begun maneuvering to succeed him; a new Senate leader, Trent Lott, whose conservatism may prove to be as much a matter of tactics as principles.
Then there are the issues: The Balanced Budget Amendment fails in the Senate yet again; the conservative agenda on such issues as racial preferences lies moribund; a bill to provide disaster relief for flood victims brings political disaster upon Republicans; and, of course, President Clinton and congressional leaders strike a balanced-budget deal that most conservatives regard as, at best, a huge disappointment.
Lastly, look at the themes, the inspiring articulation of the principles that separate liberal from conservative, rally the troops, and frighten the enemy: There are none. The man Gingrich brought in as communications guru for the 105th Congress was gone five months after he arrived.
Now, compare this record of nonachievement with the first nine months of the 104th Congress. Conservatism was triumphant. It had a face, the face of Newt Gingrich, and that face and those of his surrogates appeared on public-affairs programs every day to explain the intellectual and political bankruptcy of liberalism and the principles of the conservative and Republican "revolution." Under their new majority leader, Dick Armey, House Republicans united to pass their "Contract with America" legislation with disciplined energy, speed, and authority. Outside groups were energized, eager to bring their resources in the service of the revolution. It was the moment for conservative ideology to step out of the think tanks and into its governing stance, by means of the GOP congressional majority.
Moreover, in 1995, the Democrats were foundering. The president was reduced to insisting on his own relevance. Congressional Democrats spun furiously -- and erroneously. Republicans never believed their own promises and couldn't possibly make good on them, they said, even as House Republicans were proving the opposite. Democrats, in short, were still in denial.
A scant two years later, the popularity of the newly re-elected Democratic president has reached its highest level ever. Hill Democrats are busy preparing an entirely new federal entitlement for children's health insurance -- and doing so in the certain expectation that they will attract more than enough Republican votes to pass it.
Democrats have their own worries, of course: illicit fundraising, independent counsels, and Dick Gephardt, the House Minority Leader who broke with the White House over the budget deal. It could hardly be said that for Democrats, everything is hunky-dory. But it would take willful blindness not to see how partisan fortunes have reversed in two years.
Conservatives outside the provinces of Capitol Hill are saying that self-styled reformers are inevitably co-opted after they settle in Washington, and that only the naive would suppose one's own reformers are different. These so-called movement conservatives have distanced themselves from the political leaders they embraced and supported only two years ago. They vow to put their trust, not in princes, but in principles, the principles that GOP congressional leadership espouse in theory and betray in practice. The movement conservatives are left to hope that those who have abandoned their principles will rediscover them -- a rare thing -- or that a new generation of principled leaders will emerge who are capable of sticking it out and fighting the good fight to the end. …