In a column praising the choice of former Republican Congressman Ray LaHood as Barack Obama's choice to serve as Secretary of Transportation, longtime Washington Post political columnist David Broder had some pretty harsh, and in my view, inaccurate, things to say about the so-called "Republican Revolution" of 1994. He seems not only to recall it as a period of "scorched earth politics," but also suggests that congressional Republicans are now dominated by "right-wing Southerners who care not what their stance does to harm the national party's image."
Broder prominently references Newt Gingrich in his column. Beyond his description of Gingrich's "scorched earth" tactics, he notes that Ray LaHood "witnessed but didn't welcome the Gingrich 'revolution' in the House" in the mid-1990s." The essence of Broder's commentary is that LaHood represents a more moderate and reasonable Republican; one who is more acceptable to the public these days.
Perhaps Broder is correct as to what the public wants from a Republican elected official right now. And certainly I was always the person among Newt's friends preaching moderation in our actions. But I must say that moderation, for the sake of being polite at the tea party, often offers little political substance. And what Broder recalls as scorched earth I recall quite differently. In fact, a quick look at history might give Republicans pause to consider whether Broder's assessment is correct that the "Gingrich Revolution" was too reactionary, and that a more passive GOP today is the only way to give Republicans hope for electoral success going forward.
It might be wise to remember that in the early 1990s, George H.W. Bush, in an effort to enjoy a more placid and conciliatory relationship with Democrats, made what he later called the biggest blunder of his presidency. He agreed to a tax hike, despite having promised no new taxes when he ran for president just a few years earlier. The result was a disaster for Bush and the Republicans, who found the 1992 election cycle most unpleasant.
As I recall, Newt Gingrich gathered Republican candidates together not with torches or pitchforks, but rather with a simple "contract" they promised to make with the American public if elected. Concepts like welfare reform, a required balanced budget and a child tax credit were hardly material designed to reduce the republic to ashes. They were, rather, to reform and invigorate it.
As my readers know, I try to be fair. I'll be the first to say that President-Elect Obama has impressed me in his handling so far of an unusual presidential transition; one in which a broken GOP lost because it had lost its principled way. But Republicans didn't lose seats in Congress because they scorched the earth; and certainly not because they were somehow held hostage by the religious right.
For one thing, there aren't enough Republican elected officials right now with the sense to scorch their own pants with an iron, much less to scorch the planet.
And as for the notion that there is this great Southern "Bible Belt" holding Republicans back from being accepted by mainstream America, well, here's a news flash: In recent years, most marquee Christian right candidates for major office in the South have gone down in flames.
I submit that what Broder recalls as bullying during the Republican Revolution of the 1990s was instead resolute and politically tough implementation of bold, innovative and popular ideas. Yes, Gingrich and his crowd could be tough. But do I think Nancy Pelosi, Charlie Rangel or Barney Frank -- today's Democratic House leadership -- are less the bulls in a china shop? Not a chance.
And had Newt not stood his ground, the Clinton years of prosperity in the 1990s might never have happened. Why? Because it was that "scorcher," Speaker Gingrich, who forced Clinton to agree to the major cut in capital gains taxes that led to a flood of new participation in America's financial markets.
I'm the last to put down bipartisanship. And as I've written before, we all need to back our new president. Because if he fails, we may enter a longstanding depression.
As for future Republican leaders, I can't begin to tell you which name will emerge as the one to lead the party out of the wilderness.
But this I do know: The Gingrich Revolution was built from ideas, not scorched earth. And if the GOP wants to have a prayer of ever leading this nation again, it had better start putting forth creative answers just as the Republicans of 1994 did. And then they had better find the backbone to fight for those ideas. Scorched earth or not.