Having taken bold and sudden action to seize leadership of the House Republicans, Rep. Livingston comes forward on a platform of compromise. He says that he will be a good manager. He says that the Democrats will have a larger say. He says that the people have rejected the conservative platform. Pragmatism is coming into vogue in these first hours of the transition. Many members — including most of the large body that were ready to support someone other than Bob Livingston — are chafing at this talk.
Bob Livingston has a point, or anyway half a point. The problem with the Republicans in the House has not been that they are too radical, nor that they are too pragmatic. The problem is that they are radical when they should compromise, and they compromise when they should be radical. To understand which policy is right in which circumstances, one must understand a certain paradox that only Bill Clinton, among national politicians, has mastered.
How does Bill Clinton get away with being for smaller government, while persistently making it larger? He understands how the public soul is divided. On the one hand, people are deeply dissatisfied with the centralized bureaucratic mess that has grown up to supplant limited constitutional government. On the other, most things in our country, especially outside government, run fairly well, and the economy prospers. Consequently, the people dislike and mistrust the government and would see it changed. On the other, they would not see the stability, strength, and prosperity of the nation upset.
The Republicans have failed so far because they do not understand this. Seeing that people are longing for change, they become bold. Then they are thrown back because they go too far. At one moment they are ready to shut down the government for the cause of "managed care" in Medicare — a fierce fight over very little good. At another, they join the president in the deceit of "saving" Social Security, while spreading a feast of pork — mostly wherever Bill Clinton decided. No tax cuts. No education reform. No missile defense. No new empowerment of family, or enterprise, or self-reliance.
The 1998 election cannot be seen as a rejection of conservatism for the simple reason that no conservatism was brought forward in the campaign. And the voters who support reform simply stayed home. The new Speaker should meditate deeply upon the fact.
What is needed is clarity of principle combined with patient and careful steps to lead us back in the direction principle indicates. This attitude is particularly fitting in the legislature, where deliberation is the central purpose, and deliberateness an essential virtue. The Republican leadership has often failed when it tried to run the whole country from one house of the Congress. Then, in reaction to those failures, it has surrendered its power to advocate and to pass good laws.
Consider the model implicit in the founding of the Republican Party. The politics of Abraham Lincoln operated upon three levels. First, he was a politician of principle whose career turned upon a profound understanding of the Declaration of Independence. We need that quality again. Someone today must answer Bill Clinton when he abuses the principles of that document. Someone must explain that it is no equality to pick someone for a federal job because of his color. It is no equality to tax someone who labors so that others may idle. It is no equality to respect the aggressions of dictators while abandoning our own security to the vagaries of U.N. policy.
Second, Lincoln respected the Constitution. A hater of slavery, he respected always the massive absence of constitutional power in the national government to abolish it in the states. Abolitionists would meet on courthouse steps to burn copies of the Constitution in ceremony. Lincoln looked, instead, for a policy that would do the job within the Constitution.
Third, Lincoln found that policy. He promised only a simple thing: in the lands not yet incorporated as states, there would be no slavery. The federal government governed those lands directly. It was no radical step to enforce a law forbidding slavery there. The people, deeply troubled about slavery, and not knowing what to do, coalesced around his plan. So was born the Republican party. So, for the second time (of only three) in our history, a new majority party was built.
Today we have a similar job. We must understand again the principles of our country. We must find a way back to the limits and liberties contained in the Constitution. And we must adopt policies that will, by reasonable means, work us in that direction. Then the radicalism of Bill Clinton, like the radicalism of the Democrats north and south in Lincoln's day, will be exposed in their true light.
The new Speaker must therefore be someone who combines two qualities rarely found in one soul. First, he must be devoted to principle. He must have a clear idea how the government should be changed, and he must have backbone and persistence. Second, he must be patient. He must be a teacher as much as a doer. He must be able to explain how we make large changes in small increments, how we start off in a new direction without losing our way.
If Bob Livingston has these qualities, he will succeed, and the road will be smooth to the 2000 elections. If he lacks them, confusion will soon reign.