TOPICS > Politics

GOP Freshman Revisited

November 13, 1996 at 12:00 AM EDT
REALAUDIO SEE PODCASTS

TRANSCRIPT

HEDRICK SMITH: One week ago, the voters re-elected 57 Republican freshmen to a second term of office. One got elected to the Senate, fifteen others are gone–either they lost or they quit–but in this once brash revolutionary class, more than the numbers have changed. There’s been a significant shift in mood and in where the class is headed.

REP. RICK WHITE, (R) Washington: I don’t think we’ll have the same chutzpah that we had last time–you know, we’ve been there two years–we’re going to be a little bit more measured, a little bit more cautious, perhaps–

REP. MARK FOLEY, (R) Florida: I don’t think it’s going to be this lockstep, this army marching after the leader, saying, we’ll do whatever you want, Newt. It’ll be a much more independent voice saying, hey, wait a minute, I’ll go with you on some of these things, but don’t count on me on the whole agenda.

REP. RANDY TATE, (R) Washington: I think there needs to be more bipartisanship. There needs to be more of an effort to work together instead of just see them as a number, or just, hey, that’s folks from the other party.

HEDRICK SMITH: Two years ago, the Class of 1994 rode into Washington as the vanguard of a political revolution and quickly made its mark. It was a class of firebrands and upstart neophytes passionately committed to the dream of toppling the old political order and dramatically shrinking the federal government. Over the past two years, the Class of ‘94 has changed greatly–reshaped by its bruising encounter with the hard realities of American politics. This is the story of the greening of the Class of ‘94. When these freshmen arrived, they were unlike anything Washington had seen before–more partisan, more ideological, far more united.

REP. ROGER WICKER, (R) Mississippi: We came to the nation’s capital January 4th determined to turn this nation around.

REP. ZACH WAMP, (R) Tennessee: There was a sense of destiny about it. We were brought here together for a purpose. A lot of people that had never severed in elected office–fewer lawyers, more real business people from the heart of America, sent here with that common mission.

REP. JOE SCARBOROUGH, (R) Florida: It’s pathetic. It’s the way Washington worked in the past. And it’s why we’re here to make a difference.

REP. SAM BROWNBACK, (R) Kansas: You’ve wandered for forty years, and finally you’re moving in. And it was just this huge sense of exhilaration.

HEDRICK SMITH: In the first 100 days, the freshmen happily enlisted as the shock troops of Speaker Newt Gingrich’s political army–helping to pass nine out of 10 items in the Contract with America. When more experienced politicians hesitated, the freshmen tried to stamped them into action.

REP. ZACH WAMP: The people spoke clearly last year. They believe they’ve been over-regulated, over-taxed and over-litigated. And I rise in grave concern tonight.

HEDRICK SMITH: They called not only for curbing the power of federal agencies but for shutting down entire cabinet departments.

REP. SAM BROWNBACK: Agencies such as the Department of Commerce and Energy, HUD, and Education. This is an absolute need.

REP. MARK FOLEY: This class knew from Day One they could be players, and that we could, if we stayed together, force our party to go along with our intentions, rather than be told how to vote and how to act.

HEDRICK SMITH: With the braze self-confidence typical of his class, freshman Zach Wamp of Tennessee boasted to the New York Times, “The freshmen are the purest, most worthy group of leaders elected to this body in my lifetime.”

REP. HENRY HYDE, (R) Illinois: That sounds like a living, breathing definition of hubris.

HEDRICK SMITH: Republican veterans like Henry Hyde of Illinois watched with growing concern that freshman cockiness and aggressiveness spelled trouble for Republicans.

REP. HENRY HYDE: I think if you’ve knocked around a little bit, you’ve had your victories and your defeats, your triumphs, and your disappointments, you’re more modest.

HEDRICK SMITH: In fact, over-confidence proved an Achilles’ heel for the freshmen in the biggest political battle of their first year–over what Republicans saw as their crowning achievement–their plan for balancing the budget in seven years.

REP. RICK WHITE: The budget process was kind of the apotheosis of everything we tried to do during our first year. You know, this was a very important thing. We felt that our entire agenda was wrapped up in this one particular bill. We kind of had this, in retrospect, kind of false sense of confidence that somehow, some way we’d get President Clinton to sign it.

SEN. BOB DOLE: It’s truly a historic document. It’s actually going to balance America’s budget.

REP. NEWT GINGRICH, Speaker of the House: For the first time in a generation, a Congress has sent to the President a balanced budget–

HEDRICK SMITH: But when President Clinton rejected their package, Republican leaders forced a government shutdown, to build pressure on the President to sign the Republican budget. For the freshmen, what began as a tactic became a holy crusade.

REP. ANDREA SEASTRAND, (R) California: (December 1995) It’s obvious the President doesn’t know what the Americans want. So I’ll tell him. The American people want a balanced budget, and they want it now.

HEDRICK SMITH: After several weeks of deadlock, Gingrich and Senate Leader Bob Dole saw their public support slipping away, and so they agreed with Clinton to reopen the government, without realizing a balanced budget. But freshmen militants brooked no compromise. They torpedoed the deal.

PRESIDENT CLINTON: Today, the most extreme members of the House of Representatives rejected that agreement. I won’t yield to these threats. We should reopen the government now.

REP. LINDSEY GRAHAM, (R) South Carolina: We’re not going to go anywhere, and the blame lies on 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, and nowhere else.

REP. SHERWOOD BOEHLERT, (R) New York: I think, in a sense, the Speaker created a monster.

HEDRICK SMITH: Senior Republicans like New York State’s Sherry Boehlert saw Gingrich’s tactics with the freshmen backfiring.

REP. SHERWOOD BOEHLERT: He effectively used the freshman class in dealing with the White House by saying–and the Senate, too– “I can’t do such-and-such because the freshmen are just united, and they won’t let me do it.” So by the end, they were able to sort of turn that around and force things on the Speaker that maybe he didn’t want.

HEDRICK SMITH: In one stormy confrontation in a little antechamber off the Ways & Means Committee room, a group of freshmen cornered Gingrich.

REP. RICK WHITE: It was one of these moments that you know I’ll remember for a long time–you had about 20 freshmen and Newt Gingrich just absolutely duking it out on what the approach was. And basically the freshmen were saying, Newt, don’t sell us out. Hang in there. Don’t give in an inch.

HEDRICK SMITH: But Gingrich had another problem, Republican unity was fraying on his moderate flank, he pleaded for Republicans to stay together.

REP. NEWT GINGRICH: A years’ work has put us in a strategic position where they can’t beat us now, unless we beat ourselves. And if you’ll stick with us, we will not beat ourselves.

HEDRICK SMITH: Home for Christmas, moderates found a growing public backlash against the Republicans over the government shutdown. When they got back to Washington, 51 Republican moderates, including freshmen like Mark Foley of Florida, pushed to reopen the government.

REP. MARK FOLEY: Nobody likes government to be in this kind of chaos. It’s still gridlock, no matter whose fault it is.

HEDRICK SMITH: Are you saying that the confrontation strategy itself was kind of wrong in conception, it’s a wrong way to go?

REP. MARK FOLEY: I don’t think confrontation in and of itself is bad, but you have to decide who you’re having the confrontation with. We were having it with the American public. We’re supposed to be having it with the White House and the Democrat. But all of a sudden we broke out in a war with the people. We were fighting our won constituents.

HEDRICK SMITH: Still militants like freshman Mark Neumann of Wisconsin held out against what they saw as caving in to the President.

REP. MARK NEUMANN, (R) Wisconsin: There is a huge amount of pressure at this point in time to fold under this thing and to give up what we came here to do, and I think the freshmen in particular have come here basically with a one-track mind, and that’s get a balanced budget using real numbers.

HEDRICK SMITH: With his party dangerously divided, Gingrich saw no choice but to reopen the government, and he forced that strategy through the House. It was a painful defeat that left some chastened freshmen talking like the party veterans whom they had once mocked.

REP. ZACH WAMP: One good thing about every now and then being knocked down is it keeps you humble, and that–the struggles that we experienced during those three months, I’ll guarantee you, taught every one of us a lesson: don’t beat your chest in this business.

HEDRICK SMITH: And Speaker Gingrich, once the freshman hero, became the target of their dismay.

REP. GINGRICH: It’s a little bit like a marriage. You, you initially have very high expectations for the honeymoon and then about the third time you’re cleaning the house and you’re looking at your bank account, you wonder, did the–you know, this is not all totally perfect.

REP. MARK FOLEY: You can’t necessarily follow the leadership on every issue if you want to truly represent your constituents.

HEDRICK SMITH: And survive.

REP. MARK FOLEY: And survive. And survival is what this is all about.

HEDRICK SMITH: In their battle for survival this fall, class solidarity gave way to every member for himself. The tougher the election, the more the freshmen played down the Republican Revolution and their loyalty to Gingrich, and wherever they could, they played up their own political independence. During a debate in a heavily labor district around Erie, Pennsylvania, freshman Phil English eagerly trumped his vote to raise the minimum wage.

REP. PHIL ENGLISH: And that’s why I broke with my part leadership to fight to raise the minimum wage. It was something we needed to do for working families in Northwestern Pennsylvania. It was long overdue.

HEDRICK SMITH: In an environmentally sensitive district in the Pacific Northwest, Rick White made an issue of his moderation on the environment to the editorial board of the Seattle Times.

REP. RICK WHITE: And starting on May 16th and continuing with the environmental riders, you know, where they wanted to zero out 17 environmental programs in a big budget bill, I voted against that three times.

HEDRICK SMITH: To Mark Foley, the key to re-election was putting local priorities ahead of Republican unity.

REP. MARK FOLEY: I came here and followed the leadership on several EPA riders that had turned out to be disastrous in my district. People were offended that I would approach environmental regulation with such an overkill, if you.

HEDRICK SMITH: That flexibility and pragmatism saved 57 freshmen, including Foley.

REP. MARK FOLEY: If you pay attention, focus on what matters to them, you, in fact, will be re-elected by wide margins.

HEDRICK SMITH: But 13 others did not move far enough, fast enough to satisfy their voters. Some like Jim Longley in Maine and Dick Chrysler in Michigan were beaten, in part, by a massive media campaign by labor and environmental groups linking them to N ewt Gingrich.

DICK CHRYSLER: Labor union bosses bought back some seats, including this one.

HEDRICK SMITH: Others, like Andrea Seastrand of California, and Fred Heineman of North Carolina lost rematches to candidates whom they had only narrowly beaten in 1994.

FRED HEINEMAN: Listen, we win some, and we lose some.

HEDRICK SMITH: Still others, like Mike Flanagan of Chicago and Randy Tate of Washington State, came across this year as too conservative for their traditionally Democratic districts. Tate had some parting advice for the winners in his class.

REP. RANDY TATE: I would tell those freshmen, Do what you said you were going to go back there and do, even if the political heat hits you. You know, stand up for what you believe in. You know, change Congress. Don’t let it change you. Stick up for your guns even if it gets rough.

HEDRICK SMITH: But today that means different things to different members of the Class of ‘94. To conservative budget hawk Mark Neumann, who narrowly held his seat, it means pressing ahead undaunted.

REP. MARK NEUMANN: The American people tonight said through this election that they want us to keep on course.

HEDRICK SMITH: You’re reading the election as a mandate to resume the revolution?

REP. MARK NEUMANN: Absolutely. Absolutely. And if we call it a revolution, I think it’s just doing what the American people want done.

HEDRICK SMITH: And do you think there’s a loss of taste for confrontation in the Congress, in your–in your class?

REP. MARK NEUMANN: Not on my part. I mean, I have to tell you, if, if the question that you’re asking me is would I vote for a government shutdown again, if that’s what was necessary to keep us on track to balancing the budget by the year 2002, the answer is definitively yes. If it means I get unelected in the next term, then so be it. They can have the seat.

HEDRICK SMITH: But to Florida moderate Mark Foley, another winner, it means serving the district first, and that requires applying the brakes.

REP. MARK FOLEY: The moderates are going to say to Newt, listen, we have to be more careful. We let you lead us over a lot of cliffs, and there was a deep drop. Pushing people to the far right extreme is not a solution, nor is it a strategy that will win the electoral votes for our individual members.

HEDRICK SMITH: Still, other victorious freshmen like Pennsylvania’s Phil English and Washington State’s Rick White see the election returns as a public demand for bipartisanship.

REP. RICK WHITE: I think the message voters sent us last night is that we’re going to make you guys work together, whether you like it or not.

HEDRICK SMITH: The returning Class of ‘94 sound less like brash newcomers and more like politicians, humbled by hard experience.

REP. ZACH WAMP: If I were in the summer of 1994, and they were saying how would you draw it up, I wouldn’t use the word revolution.

HEDRICK SMITH: Why not?

REP. ZACH WAMP: Because it’s too strong. This country doesn’t want a revolution. They want a correction. They want a government that works. They don’t want no government. Revolution would imply no government. We’re not going to overthrow the government. We’re going to take this government, we’re going to make it work.

HEDRICK SMITH: Even so, members of the class, like Sam Brownback, who won Bob Dole’s old Senate seat in Kansas, claim credit for turning around Washington–on welfare reform, and by successfully pressuring President Clinton to accept their own continuing priority of a balanced budget.

REP. SAM BROWNBACK: And we really did change Washington. It’s different. I mean, because of the 104th Congress, and the people coming in, it’s a different–it’s a different beast–this–this ship of state’s turned, and I can look back on that two years and say, I was part of something real.

HEDRICK SMITH: Clearly, Washington has also changed the Class of ‘94, gone for the most part is the heated rhetoric, the vaunted unity, the aggressive partisanship of two years ago. Instead, there’s a more familiar political pragmatism, accepting piecemeal progress and some compromise instead of demanding an instant revolution.

SPOKESMAN: Quite wisely, the founders of our country made it very difficult to get anything done in a short period of time. They were probably very smart to set it up that way because it takes a real consensus in our country if you’re ever going to do anything. And while it may be a little painful for those of us who are in the process. That’s probably the way it should be.