The 113th Congress may be one of the least effective in history, but its extreme partisanship is nothing new. The political gulf between the Republican and Democratic parties has lead to deadlock and crisis for decades. In his new book The Republicans: A History of the Grand Old Party, American History Professor Lewis L. Gould revisits his thorough history of the GOP with extended chapters to include contemporary Tea Party characters. Gould criticizes the party for losing sight of its ideals, and calls its disdain for Democratic values “toxic.”
In the excerpt below, Gould recounts the mid-’90s Republicans’ desperation to preserve their image — and how that desperation led them to impeach President Bill Clinton.
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As the Republican convention neared, Senator Dole sprang two surprises. He promised a 15 percent cut in tax rates over a three-year period that would produce “a fairer, flatter tax.” Many among the Republicans disliked the progressive income tax and had been advocating that the existing tax rate structure be replaced with a single, low tax rate on all Americans. The great beneficiaries of such a change would be the wealthy, with taxes on the poor rising in some instances. Since there would be a loss of federal revenues at the start of Dole’s plan, Democrats claimed that what Dole proposed would “blow a hole in the deficit,” but the Republican candidate promised to find spending reductions that would offset the revenue losses.
The second bold move was his selection of former congressman Jack Kemp as his running mate. A champion of tax cuts, Kemp was thought to be popular among African Americans, and he had the glamour of once played in the National Football League. However, he brought little advantage to the ticket, since Dole had no chance of carrying Kemp’s home state, New York, against Clinton. Kemp also turned out to be a mediocre campaigner. Dole got a modest bounce out of the convention, but Clinton’s lead soon widened again.
In the campaign, Ross Perot once again launched a third-party effort, but without the enthusiasm of success of 1992. Dole and Clinton debated twice, with the Texan not present. In neither encounter did Dole inflict any serious damage. By mid-October, Clinton seemed far ahead, and the Democrats saw a chance to recapture the House and Senate. Then news reports surfaced about campaign contributions to the president from East Asia, with the possible involvement of Communist Chinese and Indonesian business interests. The revelations ate away at the Democratic lead, and the race tightened some- what. Dole conducted a last-minute whirlwind tour of the country to show that his age was no bar to being president. Yet when his blitz was over, the result of the election still seemed predictable.
Clinton secured a second term with 379 electoral votes and 49 percent of the vote to 41 percent for Dole and 8 percent for Perot. Dole won 159 electoral votes from reliable GOP states. For the second presidential election, the Republican popular vote had been under 42 percent. The Republicans also lost some seats in the House of Representatives but held on to a ten-seat majority. In the Senate, the Republicans gained two seats but with fifty-five votes were still short of the sixty votes needed to halt a Democratic filibuster. A divided government remained in place.
The two parties worked together in 1997 to achieve a budget agreement to balance the government’s books for the first time in decades. With a booming economy and a soaring stock market, the trend pointed to an end to the budget deficit. Clinton claimed that his policies, beginning with the 1993 tax bill, had produced that positive result. Republicans answered that their control of Congress had led to fiscal discipline and the brightening budget situation. Either way, by 1998, the nation could look forward to an unheard-of novelty: an annual budget surplus.
In the House, unhappiness with Speaker Gingrich culminated in an attempt by rebellious Republicans to oust him in the summer. Their perception was that Gingrich too often had failed to defeat Clinton on budget issues and other confrontations. An attempted coup against the Speaker collapsed in mid-July 1997 when the plotters could not agree on his successor. The episode left the House GOP in some disarray, but Gingrich had survived. Among his more intense supporters there was even talk of presidential candidacy in 2000, despite his weakened position in the House.
Then a dramatic development scrambled American politics and renewed Republican optimism about 2000: the revelation of President Clinton’s affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky and the possibility of his impeachment for perjury and other crimes in connection with this sordid episode. While Republicans had no doubts about Clinton’s guilt, the situation presented delicate alternatives for the opposition. As the year unfolded and it became clear that the public did not want the president removed, the GOP was forced to reconcile its distaste for Clinton with political reality. In the end, the party decided to press forward with impeachment out of a genuine belief in the president’s complicity in perjury and obstruction of justice.
Having made that decision, however, Gingrich and his congressional allies then failed to develop a strategy that could achieve Clinton’s conviction and removal from office. The legislative arithmetic was simple. A majority of the House could pass articles of impeachment. Since Republicans assumed that the 1998 election would increase their majority in the House, their capacity to place Clinton on trial was assured. The Senate was another matter. Assuming that all fifty-five Republicans voted to convict Clinton, the GOP needed to win over twelve Democratic senators to achieve the president’s removal. Thus, the success of the impeachment campaign hinged on bipartisanship and conciliation of the Democrats in both houses. In a sign of their growing unwillingness to engage in constructive lawmaking, the Republicans adopted a confrontational approach that risked alienating the Democrats rather than seeking their support.
Gingrich and the House Republican leadership saw the autumn of 1998 as the chance to increase their slim majority, since the voters would punish the Democrats for their loyalty to Clinton. That did not happen. The partisanship of the GOP, including the release of a salacious report on Clinton’s sexual misdeeds, backfired. The Democrats gained five seats in the House and cut the Republican majority to 221 over the Democrats’ 211. The Senate alignment remained unchanged. The unexpected outcome of the election sealed the fate of Newt Gingrich. Restive Republicans now saw Gingrich as a liability. After a false start with one leading candidate, the majority settled on Dennis Hastert of Illinois as Gingrich’s successor. Gingrich resigned his seat, ending one of the most fascinating legislative careers in American history. He was not done with American politics, however.
In spite of the election result, the Republicans pressed ahead with the impeachment of Clinton in December 1998. The writing of four articles of impeachment and the eventual adoption of two of them took place in a partisan atmosphere with only a handful of Democratic votes. By the time the trial opened in the Senate in January 1999, any chance of obtaining the dozen Democratic votes needed for conviction had long since disappeared. Republicans complained that Democrats had not displayed bipartisan statesmanship such as the GOP had shown during the Watergate controversy. Yet the Republicans in 1998 had forgotten to seek the votes of the Democrats if they really meant to oust Clinton. The Senate proceedings were anticlimactic and Clinton was acquitted on both counts. The Senate Republicans did not achieve a majority of senators voting for conviction on either count.
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Reprinted from The Republicans: A History of the Grand Old Party by Lewis L. Gould with permission from Oxford University Press USA, © Lewis L. Gould, 2014
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