It is hardly possible to overestimate the magnitude of the political earthquake that shook Washington on November 8. The breathtaking Republican sweep of the House, the Senate, and the governorships of the nation's most populous states left Capitol Hill in shock and disarray, ripping through the comfortable Democratic establishment that has reigned virtually unchecked for most of the postwar era.
To a public long riveted on presidential contests, the raw power of the congressional majority is easily overlooked. Personified in one leader, the presidency seems more potent than the warring, shifting factions that are a legislature.
But the presidency is weak by design. It is Congress that writes the laws and spends the money. The president proposes. Congress acts.
Congress has had plenty of help from presidents, Democrat and Republican alike. But it is the Democratic majority in Congress that is most responsible for the creation and expansion of the modern welfare state and all its accoutrements: the crushing tax burden, the erosion of economic and personal freedom, the smothering bureaucracy, the intrusive and mindless regulation of private activity, and the entitlement dependency that saps our common community.
For the postwar generations, which include nearly everyone alive today, Democratic hegemony has been taken for granted--by the press, the public, and by both parties. The day after the election, many on both sides of the aisle were finding the new reality difficult to fathom. Nobody had experienced it for 40 years.
Not one GOP incumbent fell, even as the most revered of liberal icons toppled. Some were defeated, including House Speaker Tom Foley, Ways and Means Chairman Dan Rostenkowski, and Judiciary Chairman Jack Brooks. Others were pitched from their Hill thrones into minority ignominy. Grand Inquisitors like John Dingell and Henry Waxman can no longer terrorize from their committee chairmanships. Potentates who crafted every modern federal law and shaped every federal program--from welfare, to labor, to the environment, to commerce, to everything--have been stripped of the power they have wielded so freely for decades.
Democrats will lose as well the thousands of professional aides who have made careers of designing federal law and making the mischief that the rest of the country has had to cope with. The Republican sweep will decimate the institutional foundation on which the Democratic agenda rests.
"It's unfathomable," said one House Democratic aide. With Speaker-in-waiting Newt Gingrich promising to cut congressional staff by a third, and with the new GOP majority controlling the bulk of the remainder, some three quarters of the Democratic positions could be wiped out--more if committees are disbanded or consolidated. "It hasn't sunk in yet," the aide said. "People can't even comprehend it. It's everyone," from senior committee counsel to the patronage employees who send the Capitol's elevators up and down. (The Hill has automatic elevators and people to press the buttons.)
"It's Joy in Mudville as thousands of staffers are thrown out on the street," huffed one Democratic press secretary, arguing that it would be foolish to fire everyone. "Do you want 'entrenched' airline pilots or do you want somebody brand frigging new?"
Somebody brand frigging new, one hopes, to pilot American democracy out of its headlong drive toward socialism. Democrats will scatter to the hinterlands. The White House cannot accommodate the thousands who must go, and the lobbying firms are bracing for a regime where Democratic contacts trade at a deep discount.
Now the levers of power can be moved by those who might pay more respect to markets and be more suspicious of government's ability to right every wrong and solve every ill.
Whether Republicans have the courage to roll back government is the $1.5 trillion question. One sympathetic observer estimated that the GOP has 60 days to close ranks behind an agenda.
Struggles are already emerging between energized conservatives and the old Republican guard that still rules the Senate and will hold key chairmanships there--from Majority Leader Bob Dole to Pete Domenici at Budget, Nancy Kassebaum at Labor, John Chafee at Environment, Mark Hatfield at Appropriations, and Bob Packwood at Finance.
The presidential contest introduces its own dynamic, with Texas
Sen. Phil Gramm turning the heat on Dole. It is worth noting that
from the start of the Clinton health-care debacle, which set
up the Democratic slaughter, Gramm adopted a no- compromise, free- market opposition. Running from their principles, most other Republicans were stressing their commitment to health reform. Dole was busy setting up a huge Republican- style alternative health entitlement, buying into the Democratic agenda with less of the same. Ultimately, the party moved to Gramm's position, derailing a near national disaster.
The GOP remains divided, and short of a veto- proof majority. Also, warns California Rep. Chris Cox, "A Republican takeover is not identical to a libertarian takeover."