Published by WTM Enterprises.

September 12, 2000

Strakon Lights Up

Deeper into gravity

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You don't have to concede the existence of a ruling class, much less follow the intricate dance of Dark Suits and Red Guards, in order to recognize political gravity at work. Last time I wrote of political balls rolling down ruling-class hills, and that's all very well, but a metaphor more glaringly obvious and also more illuminating is that of Leviathan as the sun around which all the partisan planets must revolve. The more massive the sun, the more inescapable the orbit.

One of Walter Karp's most provocative interpretations, in the book of his I cited last time, Indispensable Enemies,  deals with the fate of the Democrat mavericks who poured into the House as a result of the titanic Roosevelt landslide of 1936. Comparing their fate with that of another, more recent class of congressional mavericks plainly illustrates the American political system's celestial mechanics.

According to Karp, the Democracy's oligarchs of 1937, opposed to authentic Reform and terrified by any threat to their control of the party apparatus, immediately saw that something drastic had to be done. The newly elected mavericks — whom I would describe as a collection of goofballs, cranks, Reds, and farmer-labor naifs — had to be suppressed.

The result: the shocking scheme to pack the Supreme Court, which the famously canny Franklin Roosevelt "blunderingly" pressed to the point of political ruination — not his  political ruination, you understand, but the mavericks'. Believing Roosevelt's radical rhetoric, the mavericks loyally followed him all the way down the court-packing path. Many Democrat regulars went along, too, but they tended to occupy traditionally safe Democrat seats, while most of the mavericks had captured seats that were normally Republican. The return to normality, otherwise known as the crack of doom, came in 1938, when the Democrats lost 75 seats in the House, wiping out most of the maverick class of 1936 and restoring order within the party.

Two years later, the party nominated the strangely undamaged Roosevelt for an unprecedented third term, which he won with the assistance of the Republicans, who put up a weak "Me, too" candidate — Wendell Willkie.

In 1995, when the "class of '94" Republican mavericks were chafing under the party discipline exerted by New World Orderly Newt Gingrich and his whips, Ronn Neff and I tried to figure out how far Gingrich would go to rope and corral his mavericks. Would he orchestrate a brilliant "blunder" in the style of his hero Roosevelt, even at the risk of losing his own speakership?

We could have given our gray cells a rest. Nothing of the sort turned out to be necessary in order to defang the class of '94. Gingrich did end up being sacked from his leadership post, but not as a result of purging the mavericks and, in so doing, sacrificing the Republican majority. Instead, the '94ers themselves helped do the sacking. Most of them, unlike the mavericks of '36, actually survived the next couple of elections they faced after their initial success in 1994. The lesson for us students of political gravity is that they didn't survive as mavericks.

I hope you won't think I'm too assiduously poring over the New York Times, but today I encountered a piece about congressional Republicans even more instructive than the one I quoted in my last column. Lizette Alvarez and Eric Schmitt write: "House conservatives, who five years ago forced a government shutdown to combat spending and later helped oust Newt Gingrich as speaker, have retreated this year and stayed mostly silent about President Clinton's desire for significant increases in spending levels." ("Five Years After Government Shutdown, Mum's the Word From House Conservatives," datelined September 11)

Alvarez and Schmitt say that the '94ers, far from continuing to rebel against either Clintonista state-building or their own party leadership, "have embraced the art of Washington politics, in many cases swapping principle for pragmatism." While learning to "compromise," the Timeswriters say, the '94ers have simultaneously learned "to funnel money back home to protect themselves and the tenuous Republican hold on the House."

One factor restraining the '94ers is that darned old surplus, according to Alvarez and Schmitt: "Their crusade to slash spending has become difficult to justify to their leaders and constituents in an era of budget surpluses. They are soldiers in flux, their mission blunted by prosperity. In the 1994 campaign, they coalesced around ridding the country of a ballooning deficit, balancing the budget and ending wasteful spending. Now, they say, much of that has been accomplished."

I'm sure many of the class of '94 did make a big noise about deficit spending when they first ran. But I seem to remember a lot of talk, too, about how the government was just too big, intrusive, and powerful. The question wasn't whether the stormtroopers of Waco could be put on a sound financial footing but whether there should be stormtroopers at all. And if I recall correctly, the question wasn't really whether "we could afford" HillaryCare; rather, it was whether we wanted Hillary and her bureaucrats telling us what doctor we could go to and how he could treat us.

What happened? Well, as it turned out, most people weren't anti-government at all. Once the Clintonistas put down their fright masks — or, rather, put on normal-people masks — and once they got their witch doctors to say Leviathan was affordable after all, it turned out that "the era of Big Government" wasn't quite over. If it's now politically risky to make Bill Clinton eat those lying words, it's because big, intrusive, powerful government is wildly popular. Even more popular than tax cuts. Never thought I'd see the day, and someone once said I was a pessimist.

Something strenuous and complicated — even embarrassing — had to be done to kill off the mavericks of '36, because the Rooseveltian blend of socialism/fascism was wildly popular, and the mavericks naturally figured that the more of it there was, the better. Their constituents seemed to think so, too. That made increased socialism/fascism look good for the radicals in terms of their career as well as their ideology. But Roosevelt and (as I would have it) his ruling-class colleagues and senior partners knew they had to carefully engineer and manage the Leviathan they were building so it would accomplish certain desired ends — ends to which the mavericks were not privy. In effect, Roosevelt & Co. had to exert their political muscle and spend quite a bit of political capital to restrain the ordinary workings of gravity.

Nothing so strenuous was necessary to rein in the Republican mavericks of '94. All that was necessary for the Clintonistas was to quit massacring dissenters in public, tone down the Bolshevik shrieking, and let political gravity resume its normal pull. Greater socialism/fascism — on a "bipartisan basis," of course — is good for the Republican mavericks' career but not so good for their purported ideology. Presto chango. They're still there, but they're mavericks no more.

Once the great sun of Leviathan is alight, everything within its reach will orbit regularly around it, eagerly drinking in its life-giving energy. Republicans may be from Mars, and Democrats from Venus, but to survive and thrive they both need that sun to shine on. What we, the ruled, need is a supernova. Ω

September 12, 2000

Published in 2000 by WTM Enterprises.

An earlier column on political gravity.

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