The revolution is over. While November’s election may have been a knock in the head to the Republican Party generally, it was a dagger through the heart of the Republican right. As moderate GOP governors swept to victory all across America, hard-right GOP governors and gubernatorial candidates—Alabama’s Fob James, South Carolina’s David Beasley, California’s Dan Lungren—were going down in states long regarded as Republican strongholds. It was the congressional right that suffered the gravest defeats. Not only did it lose its national leader when Newt Gingrich was shoved from the speakership, but it then lost the brief and intense battle to elect his successor. Christopher Cox, the five-term Republican representative from Orange County who waged a two-day campaign for the post, was the darling of the party’s economic right. A former Reagan White House lawyer who advised supply-side fanatic Arthur Laffer during his quixotic 1986 Senate campaign, Cox was endorsed by the Wall Street Journal for the speakership—on the very day that Louisiana’s Bob Livingston, the wheeling-dealing chair of the House Appropriations Committee, was persauding his colleagues to make him speaker. Livingston is a traditional southern conservative—but he’s not a movement conservative like Cox. During Clinton’s first term, according to the indices compiled by The Almanac of American Politics, Livingston aligned himself with the liberal position on 22 percent of key votes, while Cox voted that way just 3 percent of the time.
When historians look back on the period of the Gingrich speakership, I suspect they will view these years as a period of self-destructive excess on the right, much as they view the late sixties and early seventies as a time of self-induced implosion on the left. Both the late-sixties left and the mid-nineties right began by espousing broadly popular causes—respectively, opposition to the Vietnam War and opposition to welfare—but a sense of maddened rectitude soon pushed them to the fringes of the political spectrum. Just as the sixties left in its Weatherman incarnation announced that its mission was to wage an insurrection against established society, the nineties right moved to smash the state by closing down the federal government, made private morality a public matter by the prominence it gave to the abortion issue and the Lewinsky affair, and otherwise made clear that it too was spoiling for a civil war that would purify America. On both the Weather left and the Gingrich right, intensity substituted for breadth of support, and each group’s apostles came to dwell within a hall of mirrors that led them to believe their strength was far beyond what the numbers actually were.
Now, in the wake of November’s electoral repudiation, Republicans are scurrying madly away from the politics of jihad that they’ve practiced for the past four years. Problem is, their respectable, mainstream-right agenda...
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