Introduction: Should You Read This Story?
Suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself. — Mark Twain
Should you read this story? Let me help you answer that question by giving you the following quiz. Suppose you are about to vote to elect your next congressperson. Which of the following candidates would you choose?
Candidate A is the Republican incumbent. He is a college dropout whose last job outside politics — over 20 years ago — was as a lifeguard. He supports white men’s rights and he has referred to environmentalists as “zealots” and “extremists.”
Candidate B is running as the Perot party candidate. She is a self-professed dominatrix who promises to beat Newt Gingrich in ways that have not yet been imagined. She has lips that would make Hugh Grant blush, she promises to be as tough on crime as she is on her clients, and she is an avid supporter of corporal punishment — so long as she gets to personally administer it.
Candidate C is the Democratic challenger. He is a professor of economics at one of the world’s leading universities and the author of several widely acclaimed books on public policy. He has managed his own business and regularly provides consulting advice to both business and government. He is a conservative on fiscal matters and a progressive on issues such as a woman’s right to choose and protecting the environment.
Now if after reading these descriptions your voting choice is Candidate A, I do not recommend this story. My suggestion is that you read the collected works of Rush Limbaugh followed by Oliver North’s biography and G. Gordon Liddy’s autobiography. Then devote your free time listening to and expressing your opinions on talk radio.
If your choice is Candidate B, I also do not recommend this story. My suggestion is the special Valentine’s Day leather-bound edition of the complete works of the Marquis de Sade and a lifetime subscription to Hustler magazine. If you have any free time and money left, you may want to call Candidate B’s hotline at 1-900-whipmenow for her daily inspirational message.
If your choice is Candidate C, you may find this story entertaining and interesting. You should know in advance, however, that Candidate A is going to whip Candidate C’s butt pretty good and that Candidate C is going to (almost) wind up in jail. But therein lies the tale.
The Difference Between God and Newt Gingrich
When I listen to Newt Gingrich, I agree with everything he says for the first ten minutes. After that, he scares the hell out of me. — Republican Party official, Buffalo, New York
On Election Day, November 8, 1994, a tidal wave of change crashed over the American political system. With the help of 73 unabashedly right-wing freshman congressmen, Newt Gingrich seized the gavel of Speaker of the House and the Republicans gained control of that august body for the first time in 40 years.
Within months of taking power, Newt Gingrich was one of the most reviled men in America not on death row, the Republican Congress had one of the highest unfavorability ratings ever recorded, and the Democratic Party — with two feet in the grave just months before — was absolutely giddy with the prospect of taking a Congress back that it had thought was lost forever. That’s when I got the phone call. It was from former Congresswoman Lynn Schenk — one of the bloodiest casualties of the Gingrich revolution.
Lynn is a tough, intelligent, articulate, and stunning blonde who looks, acts, and sounds perfect for politics. She had been elected to Congress in 1992, the “Year of the Woman,” and, indeed, she had become San Diego’s first congresswoman in history. At that time, it looked as if she was on her way toward a long and distinguished career.
Unfortunately, Lynn lost her bid for reelection within a few months of taking office — although the votes weren’t to be counted for over a year. Her fatal mistake was to cast the deciding ballot in favor of President Bill Clinton’s deficit-reduction package.
Lynn’s vote was not only an act of political courage, it was also sheer stupidity. This is because San Diegans hate to see their taxes raised; and, thanks to clever propaganda by the Republicans, that’s how most everybody perceived the Clinton bill. Never mind that the legislation only raised taxes on the very, very rich — that’s a subtlety that neither the president nor the Democratic leadership ever successfully communicated to the American people.
So from that fateful day forward — a day in which not a single Republican voted for the Clinton bill — Schenk was dead meat. She would not be alone, however. More than 30 other Democratic incumbents would fall on Clinton’s tax-hike sword in the 1994 election, including Speaker of the House Tom Foley of Washington State, Intelligence Committee Chairman Dan Glickman of Kansas, and Judiciary Committee Chairman Jack Brooks of Texas. (Foley, by the way, was the first sitting Speaker of the House to be defeated in an election since 1862.)
There are two lessons to be learned from Lynn Schenk’s unfortunate fate. The first is that any politician who is not in a safe seat, where one’s reelection is assured, must sometimes tell the president to go choke on a Big Mac, especially when he lobbies for something politically suicidal. (Please tell him politely, however.)
The second lesson is that any president who forces members of his party to cast a vote that will cost them their reelection is a damn fool. Of course, Bill Clinton was a damn fool that year — something even he’d probably admit — but it was only one of a number of rookie mistakes made by our freshman president. This mistake, however, cost Bill Clinton control of the U.S. Congress by his own party.
But come to think of it, it may not have been so stupid after all for Clinton to lose the Congress. In hindsight, that loss undoubtedly saved what at the time was Bill Clinton’s very sorry rear end because it gave Clinton somebody even less popular than he was to kick around, namely, Newt “let’s shut down the government” Gingrich. This has turned out to be a popular sport with the American people, and justly so.
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