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Battles won and a war lost – possibly – conflict between the executive and the legislative branches of government

This Elizabeth Drew offering demonstrates an adage of politics: There are no final victories.

When the 104th Congress arrived in Washington in January 1995, few inside the Beltway knew what to expect. Republicans held control of both chambers of Congress for the first time in forty years and the House was infused with a freshman class more ideologically conservative than the rest of the body. As a result, the showdown between House Speaker Newt Gingrich and President Bill Clinton was of historic proportions — including the longest and most disruptive federal government shutdown ever.


Showdown portrays this twelve-month period with such great detail that Drew sometimes seems to lose sight of the long-term implications of the events she is chronicling. While Drew’s access and thorough interviews are commendable. her relentless detail becomes burdensome. There are lessons to be learned from this period, but these lessons may require a less dramatic and more long-term view of the process than Drew provides.


In January 1995, motivated by their historic victory and conservative ideology, the members of the Republican Congress appeared to be cohesive. The Clinton administration, on the other hand, showed signs of floundering. This perception is confirmed by Drew, who reveals that two months after the election the Clintons “were still angry and hurt by the results of the midterm election…. When one friend said [Clinton’s] mood was doing him no good — that he should pull himself together and get on with the presidency — Clinton screamed some more.”


Drew feels that Clinton let his emotions about the election erode his discipline and leadership. Showdown portrays Gingrich as a man with a “vision” which carried him from bench-warmer to party leader and Clinton as largely without the ability to articulate his guiding principles.


Throughout the book, Gingrich appears to be a systematic thinker — less ideologue than pragmatist. Rather than becoming a leader impelled by circumstances, he appears to be constantly creating circumstances to enhance his leadership. His philosophy on leadership comes in an early chapter: “`The first fob of a leader is to set and create a focus. Second, be a symbol…. Three, gather resources in the society at large. Four, using the resources of the federal government, govern. The traditional leader would focus on the fourth part. Reagan did the first part. F.D.R. did all four; he’s the greatest leader we ever had.'”


An example of Gingrich’s leadership was his ability to sharply focus attention on an issue. Drew gives us many examples of this skill — from the “Contract With America” to the controversy over Gingrich’s advocacy of orphanages in the welfare reform debate. Drew quotes Gingrich’s spokesman Tony Blankley, as saying, “The orphanage issue is fairly typical of the way Newt operates. He drew the contrast between a dumpster and Boys Town. `Orphanages’ is a word that communicates very well. Over time, we win the larger policy debate on welfare; it sharpens the focus on the existing program.”


As Showdown illustrates, this approach has its political dangers. If public opinion rejects the sharply focused position Gingrich has drawn, compromise becomes extremely difficult. The orphanage debate, in Drew’s account, is also an example of Gingrich’s desire to show off. It demonstrates his broad familiarity with social analysis, an area in which, she says, Gingrich was “not unlike his counterpart in the White House.”


While the speaker dominates the first half of Showdown, President Clinton slowly reappears as a crucial figure. Drew begins to address the question of presidential leadership as she describes how, in the summer of 1995, Clinton gave a series of speeches which were designed to define his values.


Surprisingly, Clinton chose to make his strongest statement a defense of affirmative action programs. His pronouncement was surprising because it demonstrated a political courage that many thought was lacking, and it signaled Clinton’s willingness to confront the phenomenon of the “angry white male.” Up to that point, Clinton had not been regarded as reliable on racial issues, prompting leaders like Vernon Jordan and Kweisi Mfume to make a special appeal to the president not to call for any kind of scaling back of affirmative action. In standing up for a principle which was important to many, particularly African Americans, Clinton demonstrated political courage.


Both the president’s and the speaker’s leadership skills would be tested by the budget battles coming that fall. The impatience of the freshman Republicans in the House with the budget showdown became a critical question of leadership. Budget Committee Chairman John Kasich recalled a meeting with the Republican freshmen in September, where Kasich tried to ask them to consider compromising just a little. “`You can’t say that at the end of the day it’s going to be a hundred percent our way. It could be seven years and one hour [until a balanced budget].’ The freshmen replied, `No, John, not an hour.'”


Not until relatively late in the battle did the Republican freshmen learn that politics is the art of compromise. This lesson was, in part, forced upon them by the disapproval of the American public for their radical tactics. At the same time, the president also precipitated their downfall by standing his ground and forcing the Republicans to express their extreme views. In the process, the “Republican revolution” was largely discredited.


By the end of Showdown, no budget agreement had been reached and the federal government was operating under a short-term appropriations bill which had ended the series of federal government shutdowns. So in the final analysis, neither side had things “one hundred percent their way.” Yet to some extent, there has been a sea change — a promise of a balanced budget by 2002.


This denouement belongs to Gingrich and the congressional Republicans — and it has significant implications. By setting the budget on a track towards balance, Republicans forced cuts this year totaling $1.7 billion from education spending alone — which included the elimination of 35 education programs. But by affecting as much change as they did, even if it was not everything they wanted, the Republicans may have sowed the seeds of their own undoing in November. Yet Drew doesn’t talk about this.


The story told in Showdown was not Armageddon. What Drew overlooked is that the actions and rhetoric of the 104th Congress were less of a “showdown” than they were a prelude to a much larger and more consequential confrontation in November.

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