Lord of the Gadflies

The battle to make Congress more boring

Last Thursday, Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) took the stage at the Conservative Political Action Conference to give a political speech more gripping and more combative than almost anything he'd said in his year-long campaign. The candidate who had to be pushed and pushed to talk about his opponents' records turned a machine gun on John McCain: the GOP frontrunner was wrong on Iraq, on campaign finance reform, on immigration. A crowd of half-skeptical conservatives who'd been backing Mitt Romney only a few hours earlier perked up. Here was a guy worth casting a protest vote for.

Later, when those conservatives were either deep in sleep or deep in their cups, Paul's campaign put out a press release announcingthe beginning of the end of the rEVOLution. "With Romney gone," the statement said, "the chances of a brokered convention are nearly zero." The Paul campaign was going to downsize—"I am making it leaner and tighter." And most important, the campaign admitted "another priority" for Paul, namely victory in the race for his Texas House seat. "If I were to lose the primary for my congressional seat," Paul wrote, "all our opponents would react with glee, and pretend it was a rejection of our ideas. I cannot and will not let that happen."

Paul volunteers took the news hard. One organizer in an early primary state called me to gripe about the apparent surrender of the national campaign, wondering if the whole rEVOLution had been a scam to build a big donor list. But there's another, more likely explanation: Paul is legitimately concerned about holding on to his seat. Chris Peden, an ambitious businessman and councilman from Friendswood (pop. 32,460), has overcome a slow start and is buying anti-Paul advertisements which pound home the message that to question the foreign policy that led up to 9/11 is to "blame America first."

Peden has raised enough money and buttonholed enough GOP poo-bahs in the district to put a scare into Paul, who is only the latest torchbearer of a 2008 trend—purging the odd man out. Consider also the case of another failed presidential candidate, Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), whom Paul spoke fondly of last year, and who said he might give Paul the vice presidential slot in his own White House. Kucinich is in critical danger of losing his Cleveland-area House seat to Democrats bored of his publicity-seeking and presidential bids. The Cleveland Plain Dealer endorsedhis strongest opponent, and Kucinich has been reduced to rattling his tin cupin front of YouTube viewers.

Kucinich and Paul won't face voters until March 4, but Paul's anti-war House ally Rep. Wayne Gilchrest (R-Md.) is in a life-and-death battle today for his seat on Maryland's conservative shoreline. He's been challenged multiple times by candidates who are more socially conservative or more economically conservative, but the war issue has weakened him, and he has drawn one challenger who's funding his own race and another who's got the backing of the Club for Growth.

All of this occurs as Barack Obama, looking increasingly like the Democratic nominee, is cooing to primary voters about the need for a heavily Democratic Congress. In Virginia this weekend he claimed that he, unlike Hillary Clinton, would be able to bring a huge Democratic wave to Washington. Such a "progressive majority" would enact the change that eluded Bill Clinton in his first two years in power, before the GOP took over Congress. Before he announced that he loved the troops too much to continue running for president, Mitt Romney said much the same thing. Neither was simply suggesting his adversaries were too divisive (though they were certianly doing that). Both Obama and Romney get how the realignment of the parties and the fall of Southern Democrats has made the House more homogeneous, more like a quick-acting parliament. Just a decade and a half ago, a newly elected Democrat would have to make nice with a huge caucus of conservatives within his party and a newly elected Republican would have to kiss the rings of blue-blooded moderate members from the Northeast.

Those days are gone, and the truly contrary members of each party in Congress can be counted on two hands. The efforts to beat Paul, Kucinich, and Gilchrest are, effectively, efforts to make the parties completely monochromatic. Since the start of this Congress, only eight members have voted with their party less than 80 percent of the time, and two of them are Paul and Gilchrest. Republicans in Washington publicly say good things about Paul, but activists believe that their party should stand foursquare behind the War on Terror, behind the current GOP leadership in the House in Senate, and against the Democrats. There is no room for people like Gilchrest, who bucks the party on spending and environmental issues. On the other side of the aisle, there is no patience among Democrats for Kucinich, who holds his head up and votes down war bills he finds too milquetoast. Being "Dr. No" is no longer being conservative. Now, it's hurting the team.

That isn't an indictment of anti-incumbent challenges. If half of Congress was replaced every four years, who would complain? The troubles of Paul and Gilchrest and Kucinich, though, might put an end to the era of gadflies. Paul is probably right that his rEVOLutioneers will pick up their batons and march without him. He is also right that if he loses his House seat, they'll be much worse off, without a single representative who takes their stands. Today's congressional gadflies are learning that the arm-twisting and lock-stepping that once defined urban or local political machines can, aided by the media, go national. Congress will never be a bubbling cauldron of ideas, but it doesn't have to be as binary and as bland as the anti-gadfly campaigners wish.

David Weigel is an associate editor of reason.

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