Decline and Fall

This is how a revolution ends. Not with a bang, or a "thumping," as President George W. Bush called the 2006 Republican defeat at the polls, but with a misdirected phone call and a certain sinking feeling that even the most well-intentioned politicians can grow weary of rectitude and sell out their principles for the right price.

The scene happened almost 10 years ago, when the GOP revolution in the House of Representatives was still fresh, less than three years after Newt Gingrich and his promise of a Republican "Contract With America" had swept aside four decades of Democratic rule in the House. The House in that summer of 1997 was considering passage of its annual transportation bill, routinely a fat pork sausage of legislation, larded with goodies--bridges, tunnels, exit ramps, highway extensions--for individual congressmen to take home to their districts. A band of a dozen true believers from the Class of '94, the congressmen first elected under the Gingrich banner of reform, was meeting in a small room off the floor of the House. They were trying to plot some way to slow down or stop the pork-stuffed bill--to show that the GOP was still true to its campaign promises to cut profligate government spending.

The phone rang. According to one of the congressmen in the room, Joe Scarborough, another congressman--Steve Largent, a former NFL wide receiver and one of the leaders of the group--picked up the receiver and absentmindedly mumbled, "Yeah." At the other end of the line, Largent heard the voice of Elmer G. (Bud) Shuster, the all-powerful, all-beneficent chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. Shuster, an unabashed practitioner of old-style politics, was notorious in the House for rounding up votes by dispensing highway projects to pliable congressman. Shuster apparently did not recognize Largent's voice over the phone. The chairman thought he had instead reached a different congressman--who shall remain nameless in this retelling, but who was well known at the time, a stalwart figure who often spoke of "standing up against the Man." Dictating quickly at the other end of the line, Bud Shuster was in a hurry--like Santa Claus on Christmas Eve, he had a lot of deliveries to make. Without pausing for pleasantries, he ticked off five highway projects worth $70 million, the reward to the supposedly high-minded congressman for swallowing his scruples--just this once!--and voting for the 1997 transportation bill. Package delivered, Shuster hung up.

Largent, the ringleader of the plotters, put down the phone and tried not to show his disappointment that one of their fellow do-gooders had apparently given in to temptation. Instead, as Scarborough recalls the story, Largent sardonically announced, "Well, I don't think [Congressman X] is going to be with us this time." The others in the room dryly laughed, but it was a demoralizing moment, recalls Scarborough. "You get beaten down," says the MSNBC talk-show host. (Contacted by NEWSWEEK, Largent, who suffered a stroke this year, said he could not recall the phone call; Shuster could not be reached for comment.) Scarborough told NEWSWEEK that it became a "running joke" for members of the Class of '94 to say to each other, "Well, there goes the revolution," every time one of their Contract With America reforms--like imposing term limits on members of Congress--was abandoned by lawmakers intoxicated with power.

Was the fall of the Republican revolution as predictable as the fall of man? Did the GOP revolutionaries, like so many revolutionaries before them, have to become the very thing they had once vowed to change? Gingrich, the former House Speaker, who stepped down in late 1998 before he could be pushed out, blames his successors for taking the low road to disaster. With his fondness for alliterative lists, Gingrich cites four areas where the Republicans fell short or went astray: "Candor, competence, corruption and consultants." He specifically blames former majority leader Tom DeLay, who effectively replaced Gingrich as the GOP leader in the House from 1999 through 2005. In Gingrich's judgment, DeLay, as well as other Republican leaders, threw away the power of ideas in their narrow focus on self-preservation. "When an institution develops 'the Hammer' as a model, that's not the most intellectual form of leadership," says Gingrich, alluding to DeLay's nickname, earned for his skill at enforcing party loyalty in the handing out of favors to lobbyists and influence peddlers. (DeLay did not respond to NEWSWEEK's requests for comment.)

But Gingrich deserves some of the blame himself for providing a grandiose and ultimately weak model of leadership. The story of the rise and fall of the Republican revolution in the Houseof Representatives is a timeless story of vanity and hubris--and a cautionary tale for incoming Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the new Democratic leaders, who would like to inaugurate another long periodof their party's rule.

The Republican revolution hardly started with Gingrich. The seeds were planted by the GOP's failed but visionary 1964 presidential candidate, Barry Goldwater, and conservative prophet William F. Buckley; the Reagan landslide of 1980 brought the movement to power in the White House and the Senate, which the GOP held until 1986.

The House, however, long seemed a lost cause; it had not been in GOP hands since the first two years of Eisenhower's presidency. It was Gingrich who first saw a way to exploit growing public dissatisfaction with the old Democratic barons of big government in the House, Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill of Massachusetts and his successor, Jim Wright of Texas. Gingrich, then an obscure Republican backbencher (O'Neill referred to him as a "stooge," as in the Three Stooges), used a new forum--C-Span--to rail against Democratic corruption. In 1989, somewhat surprisingly, he succeeded in forcing the resignation of Speaker Wright, who was implicated in a scheme to profit off book sales in violation of House rules.

Gingrich had been a bit of a joke even in his own party. The son of a military officer, he seemed to some lawmakers to be a Walter Mitty, a soldier wanna-be who had missed Vietnam (student and family deferments). Gingrich spouted a kind of utopian futurism about the "opportunity society" and handed out tapes so other congressmen could learn, as the accompanying instructions put it, to "talk like Newt." Some congressmen made fun of the tapes. But others listened--and learned. The 1994 congressional campaign was a referendum on big government--Hillary Clinton had launched a massive health-care reform plan that wound up strangled by its own red tape. Gingrich mounted an attack on the "bureaucratic welfare state" that caught the public mood--and shocked the pundits and prognosticators by returning the Republicans with a 26-seat majority in the House.

Suddenly it was Speaker Gingrich. Irrepressible, he launched biting personal attacks on the First Lady, chortling, "We are a happy band of Vikings, who don't mind a fight!" More seriously, he led a campaign that summer to cut federal spending and succeeded in squeezing $50 billion out of the budget before he attacked the hardest nut: Medicare. Gingrich's attempt to trim spending on medical care for the elderly does not seem that extreme--he wanted to restrain the rate of growth from 10 percent a year to 7 percent over seven years. But he immediately ran into a political buzz saw.

Gingrich compared his leadership style to that of Charles de Gaulle, Thomas Edison and Winston Churchill; he likened his legislative gambits to the battle strategies of the Duke of Wellington and Ulysses S. Grant. "Newt couldn't help himself," recalled Dick Armey, then Gingrich's House majority leader. "He was always just as grand as he could be." At first, President Bill Clinton seemed so diminished by the midterm humiliation that he had to argue that he was "still relevant" at a press conference in the spring of 1995. But by summer, after handling the tragic terror attack on the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City with grace, the president was secretly conferring with an old political consultant, Dick Morris, who was reminding his boss that governing was really a "permanent campaign." At Morris's urging, Clinton launched a demagogic but extremely effective advertising campaign accusing the Republicans of trying to "eliminate" Medicare.

In October'95, Clinton held a press conference at which he charged that the Republicans were cutting health care by $200 billion so that they could give the same amount of money back to the wealthy as tax breaks. Joe Scarborough was watching with some fellow freshman from the Class of '94. "I remember we broke out laughing, saying, 'That poor fool'," Scarborough recalled. The joke was on the Republicans. As the budget battle turned into a stalemate later that fall, the government shut down. Clinton blamed the Republicans, darkly warning that Social Security checks would no longer be mailed out. The president repeatedly outfoxed Gingrich. When Gingrich flew on Air Force One to the funeral of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, Clinton declined to find and negotiate a budget solution (preferring, instead, to play hearts up front with business tycoon Mort Zuckerman). Gingrich threw a tantrum on their return--and the New York Daily News (owned by Zuckerman) ran a front-page cartoon of Gingrich in diapers (which the Democrats made into a poster and, in a mischievous violation of House rules, stuck on the Speaker's chair). Gingrich ultimately caved in and had to plead with his own hard-liners to reopen the government.

Clinton continued to outflank Gingrich, effectively stealing much of the Republican platform by being tough on crime and welfare and declaring that the era of big govern-ment was over. Worn down, Gingrich privately confessed, "I'm not a natural leader. I'm a natural intellectual gadfly." Even after Clinton was consumed by the Monica Lewinsky scandal in 1998, Gingrich was unable to lead; his own troops were already plotting to purge him.

Gingrich's resignation after the 1998 election (the Republicans lost five seats) brought on an interlude that could only be described as comic opera. At the height of the Clinton impeachment proceedings, the new House Speaker-designate, Rep. Robert Livingston of Louisiana, resigned after the publisher of Hustler magazine, Larry Flynt, placed an ad in The Washington Post offering up to a million dollars for information about sexual indiscretions by D.C. officials. After a story broke in the press, Livingston admitted to extramarital affairs in a dramatic speech on the floor of the House. Livingston did not run for Speaker and resigned his seat.

Stunned Republicans chose a blandly amiable former high-school wrestling coach, Dennis Hastert, as their next Speaker. But the real power belonged to DeLay, who rose from whip to majority leader in 2003. A former Houston pest exterminator and archfoe of the Environmental Protection Agency, DeLay gave off a cold, hard look that was the polar opposite of sunny Reaganism. He delighted in his "Hammer" nickname. From the beginning of Gingrich's tenure, the GOP's K Street offensive had warned lobbying firms along Washington's K Street corridor that they would be wise to hire Republicans if they wanted access. There was nothing especially new about such a partisan approach to the influence-peddling business. The Republicans had only to look across the aisle to study a past master at shaking the corporate tree--former representative Tony Coelho, the onetime chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. But DeLay brought a new brazenness to the game. Before long, lobbyists could be seen in committee rooms writing legislation. With corporate coziness came the abandonment of fiscal restraint. Committee chairmen now routinely handed out "earmarks," special provisions authorizing spending for members' pet projects. In 1987, President Ronald Reagan vetoed a highway bill because it had 152 earmarks. In 2005, President Bush signed a transportation bill with 6,371 earmarks.

The nadir of the delay era may have come in the early-morning hours of Nov. 23, 2003. The Republicans, who had once tried to cut back entitlement programs, were now voting to create a whole new one--a bill to provide prescription-drug benefits for the elderly. Normally, House members have 15 minutes to cast their votes. Instead, DeLay & Co. kept the voting open for three hours--until 6 a.m.--while they persuaded old-fashioned fiscal conservatives to abandon their scruples. The exact nature of the inducements has never been clear, but Rep. Nick Smith charged that "bribes and special deals were offered to convince members to vote yes." (For Smith's vote, the leaders allegedly offered financial and political support for the congressional race of Smith's son.) The House ethics committee, effectively neutered in recent years, gave DeLay a wrist-slap reprimand. DeLay accepted the committee's "guidance," adding that he "would never knowingly violate the rules."

The House took on a Darwinian feel. It was every man for himself as staffers and even lawmakers cashed in to become lobbyists. The number of registered lobbyists in Washington nearly doubled, to 37,000, between 2000 and 2006. About half of the 200-odd congressmen who left their seats after 1998 stayed in Washington to become lobbyists or consultants. They would use their privileges as retired congressmen to lobby in the House gym and even on the House floor.

It was perhaps inevitable that the culture of sleaze on Capitol Hill would produce a Jack Abramoff. With his two downtown restaurants and his skybox at the sports arena, Abramoff was a popular host to congressmen and staffers. He was positively gleeful about bilking his clients, ultimately liberating several Indian tribes of $82 million in fees. "I wish those moronic Tiguas were smarter in their political contributions," Abramoff e-mailed Ralph Reed, his friend and the former head of the Christian Coalition. "I'd love us to get our mitts on that moolah!" When Abramoff finally pleaded guilty to fraud, he effectively took DeLay down with him. Several of DeLay's former staffers were caught up in the Abramoff scandal. DeLay was not charged with any wrongdoing, but he was embarrassed by an all-expenses-paid golfing trip to Scotland with Abramoff. Under indictment for campaign-money laundering in Texas in a weak but nagging case brought by a local prosecutor, DeLay gave up his seat in June. (He has pleaded not guilty; the case has not gone to trial.)

Hastert was never able to exercise the same iron control as DeLay. Nor was DeLay's successor as majority leader, John Boehner, able to bring real discipline to fractious House members who looked out primarily for their own political interests. The religious evangelicals became more demanding of the Republican leadership on Capitol Hill, leading to the deeply unpopular spectacle of the Terri Schiavo case. Last year Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, eager to court religious conservatives for a possible presidential run, and the House leadership, sensitive to the religious right, intervened to try to keep the patient alive on a feeding tube, a questionable use of federal power, especially for a party that once stood for less government interference.

The GOP's evangelical base was shocked and demoralized this fall when Rep. Mark Foley of Florida was exposed for having sent salacious messages to congressional pages. House leaders blamed each other for not responding to warnings that Foley was a possible sexual predator. In early October, when Hastert was compelled to hold a press conference to announce that he would not step down as Speaker, it was clear that the GOP revolution was in its late Jacobin phase.

Even so, the Republicans might have kept control of Congress had it not been for GOP overreaching on a different front--Iraq. In some ways, the hubris of Gingrich and DeLay was minor compared with the willful risk-taking of President Bush, backed by Vice President Dick Cheney, a former congressman from Wyoming.

History is full of accidents and what-ifs. Cheney was the second-ranking House Republican when he got the call to become secretary of Defense in 1989, at the beginning of the George H.W. Bush administration. (Bush's original nominee to become SecDef, former senator John Tower of Texas, was disqualified by allegations that he was a tippling womanizer.) Had Tower not been blocked from taking office, and Cheney not chosen as his Pentagon replacement, Cheney probably would have stayed in the House--and become Speaker when the Republicans won in 1994. "If Cheney had stayed I never would have gone in the leadership," Gingrich told NEWSWEEK last week. Gingrich rated Cheney as a perhaps less imaginative but more politically shrewd lawmaker than himself. Had Cheney stayed in the House and not become a war-hawk adviser to both Presidents Bush, history might well have taken a different course. We will never know. But we do know this: Democrats who, in the glow of victory, now say that none of this could happen to them ignore the story of the last dozen years at their peril.