Capital Letters: Coat-Check Time

In which our man in Washington endures Republican victory rituals.


Subj: Omnibus Spin
Date: Fri, October 16, 1998 12:49:15 PM
From: mlynch@reasondc.org

I was sitting at my desk, fact-checking my McCain piece yesterday, when an elated Horace Cooper, press secretary for Dick Armey, called to announce that the Republicans had struck a budget deal with the White House on terms favorable to the Republicans. Tell me about it, I said, as I flipped a page on my reporter's pad and uncapped my Uni-ball micro pen. I was happy to be thought enough of to be on the receiving end of spin. I have never heard Horace as excited as he was rattling off his boss' accomplishments.

A $10 billion increase in defense spending–considered "emergency spending"–with $1 billion dedicated to an anti-ballistic missile program was the first item he shared. Not only will there be no federal money for needle exchanges in D.C., but the Republicans won a ban on needle-exchange funding for the entire country. But I like needle exchanges, I interjected. Horace reminded me, however, that I wasn't in favor of the federal government's funding such pursuits. He had me. (In a conversation today, I asked him if the Republicans would make private needle exchanges legal. We both chuckled at the thought.)

The next series of accomplishments consisted of defensive feats: no money for developing national education tests, no hate crime bill, census sampling to be pushed off for another six months, some prohibitions on international family planning. Horace said Third World women would no longer receive involuntary IUDs, and he mentioned something about forced abortions in China.

"What about the Communications Decency Act II?" I asked. That stayed in. Knowing we had a disagreement, Horace was quick to point out that funding for the Department of Transportation's national ID card was yanked for a year and a proposed gun registry was blocked. The anti-drug propaganda and drug-war armament programs, however, stayed in. And the IMF, according to Horace, will get its $18 billion only after the Treasury Department certifies that it has adopted more open procedures.

Clinton gets his $1 billion increase in education spending, but locals get to decide how it's spent, within some limits. And farmers get $6 billion in emergency relief. In total, there will be $20 billion in emergency spending: $10 billion defense, $6 billion farmers, with the remainder going to the much-hyped Y2K problem and embassy security. (Why are these "emergency" items? So the spending caps aren't officially busted.)

I deemed this a mixed bag at best. I was happy about the ID and guns, but the Republicans seemed once again to have displayed fiscal incontinence while enthusiastically pandering to those who would deny me the freedom to have a good time. So I wasn't surprised by this morning's newspapers.

"This Republican Congress is going home after blowing a hole in the balanced-budget agreement it so proudly announced just a year ago," led The Wall Street Journal's Politics and Policy feature. Not exactly the spin Horace had in mind. The article noted that the "pre-election spending spree" helps define today's conservatism, adding that none of the GOP gains enumerated by Gingrich had to do with "the old order of fiscal discipline," but were in fact "important to the social right."

In his Potomac Watch column, Paul Gigot sniped that if Clinton "gets any weaker, Republicans may pass Hillary's health care plan." The Washington Post's lead article called the deal a "victory for traditional politics," an "election-year political piñata, stuffed with special projects and extra spending for both parties."

Yesterday, Horace said a common Hill analogy characterized Clinton as the place-holding Lucy and the Republicans as the place-kicking Charlie Brown, which seems about right to me. But while Clinton is still the untrustworthy Lucy, argued Horace, it is congressional Democrats who are in Charlie's position, as the president's deal with the Republicans has left them airborne with little to campaign on.

I called Horace today to discuss this idea, since the news reports quoted Democrats praising the president. "They got a great spin operation going on," Horace allowed. But if the Democrats are so happy, he asked, why are they refusing to endorse the deal until they read it?

"Is anybody going to read this before the vote?" I asked. That's precisely his point. Since no one will read it before voting on it, it should be enough that the president supports it. (I checked with a Democratic Hill staffer, who said, "We think it's a good thing. We just don't know what's in it.")

Horace then laid into his defense of the deal, which, in quintessential Washington terms, has everything to do with "our team" vs. "their team." According to this logic, all "their team," meaning the Democratic Party and its sundry bottom-feeding interest groups, got was $1.2 billion for teachers and $35 million for heating fuel for North Koreans, two items which aren't likely to motivate their base. "This is not the same as the $25 billion we spent for the radical-left agenda" to get out of town in 1996, Horace said. He was not happy about the IMF money, but at least it's for the "corporate pukes," not for feminists, Hollywood, or unions. The farm aid, which Rep. James Moran (D-Va.), my congressman, characterized in The Washington Post as "enough for farmers to buy both of the Dakotas," is bipartisan, as members of both teams count farm votes.

In this team-sport view, Horace is convinced the R-team won. "Corporate pukes" get the IMF money; military folks and contractors get $10 billion; people who go ballistic for anti-ballistic missiles get $1 billion earmarked for just that; social conservatives get abortion restrictions, no drug needles, and cybersex bans; and libertarians don't have to carry a national ID and can keep their guns.

I noted that there's not a lot of spending restraint, to which Horace responded with a "compared to what" scenario. "A $30, $40, $50 billion spending spree. That's what we were looking at," he reminded me, again noting that in 1996 they spent $25 billion to get out of town.

As our conversation wound down, our central problem dawned on me: The team that wants the federal government to be neither the keeper of morals nor a largess-disbursing nanny hasn't suited up for the game.

Horace could tell I am skeptical that anything great has been accomplished, so he offered to help devise a REASON-tailored spin. Think of all the things you didn't do, I suggested. This list includes tobacco legislation, speech-censoring campaign finance reform, managed-care regulation, national child care, and hate crimes legislation. If only they didn't have to pass a budget.

Subj: RNC Blues
Date: Fri, November 6, 1998 5:19:38 PM
From: mlynch@reasondc.org

Headed over to the Ronald Reagan Building Tuesday night to experience the election returns at the Republican National Committee's bash. "Maybe you can do an e-mail about it," said the fellow who offered me an unsolicited invitation.

After checking my coat, I found myself in conversation with Scott Hoffman, a free market lobbyist whose latest success is increasing the cap on high-skilled immigrant visas. I looked down on the shiny head of conservative talk show host Armstrong Williams, the night's emcee. As Armstrong introduced Jim Nicholson, the soon-to-be-former RNC chairman, a gang of red-sweatered youth rushed the podium, wearing a look of collective compulsion. (First line on the employment contract of an RNC intern: You must rush the stage and feign interest when Nicholson speaks.)

I don't know what Nicholson was saying, since the acoustics in the Ronald Reagan Building rendered him as intelligible as the grown-ups on "Peanuts" specials. WAH, WAH, WAH, WAH, WAH echoed off walls. Maybe it's better on the floor, Scott offered, so I headed downstairs to pick up a Diet Coke. (Beers were $5 each, and after checking my wallet, I decided to stick with caffeine.)

The acoustics were indeed better on the lower level, a mixed blessing since it meant I could hear an obligatory tribute to Ronald Reagan and the Cold War, a video intended to remind Republicans of happier times. Armstrong told us that Republicans offer a "future of promise, not license, of virtue, not vice," under a banner of "America's New Majority." A second video played, this one intended to convey the debatable notion that the GOP's shrinking majority includes some minorities. Glancing up at the two stadium screens flanking the stage, I saw brown cafeteria workers, a black woman on a porch, and other scenes of Republican-base voters going about their daily activities.

As I mingled on the main floor, I heard Armstrong exhort the crowd not to be depressed by the media's hasty calling of races. It was just half past 8 p.m., and I didn't know any races had been called. I went in search of the TV room.

"I can't think of a close race we've won," said Institute for Justice attorney and avid Republican Matthew Berry, who occupies the office adjacent to mine. Matt was monitoring exit polls throughout the day and had rushed to the RNC bash at 7 p.m. I knew he would have the latest information. "It's going to be a bad evening," he said.

By 8:55 p.m. there was already talk of Gingrich's hold on the speakership. I felt a tap on my shoulder and turned around. "They may lose the House," said Washington Post columnist and Reason Trustee Jim Glassman. "Can I quote you on that?" I asked. "They deserve to lose," he replied. "And you can quote me on that."

I met up with Armstrong, a friend since a junket we took to Switzerland. House Majority Leader Dick Armey, appearing on the Larry King Show, hovered on the two stadium screens, looking terrible. I pointed to Armey's image and asked Armstrong if the majority leader would keep his job. "There's going to be some changes," he replied. Perhaps a change worth considering, I thought, would be for you to refrain from goading such figures as Trent Lott to compare homosexuals to kleptomaniacs in television interviews. But somehow I don't think this was a change he had in mind, and I didn't mention it.

Back in the TV room, I ran into an acquaintance who works in the financial industry. "How's the market been?" I inquired, thinking its gyrations might be providing him with headaches not unlike those RNC officials and the congressional leadership would experience tomorrow. "Volatility's good. It gives you something to talk to your clients about," he said. "They think they need you."

As I pulled out a pad to write this down, he got nervous. I asked him about Republican fortunes, priming him a bit with an outrageous remark about, as Chuck Freund recently phrased it, "the paralyzed, piss-poor, pathetic assholes who lead the Republican Party." He's prepping for a political career in about 20 years and wisely didn't bite, uttering instead some Pablum about how well Republicans were actually performing, given the circumstances.

At 10 p.m. the somber TV room erupted in cheers, when the network reported that Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun (D-Illinois) was down, with 22 percent of the vote counted. Republican enthusiasts had hit bottom. They were cheering about barely beating one of the least distinguished and most corrupt members of the Senate, whom nobody ever expected to win. When Gingrich made a video appearance a bit later, the most significant thing he had to say for himself was that the Republicans had beat Sen. Moseley-Braun. He didn't even mention her victorious opponent, Peter Fitzgerald. His spin was entirely negative. "Hasn't he had media training?" a woman next to me asked.

By 11 p.m. things were degenerating. Looking down from the upper level, I watched some rhythmically impaired people dance to "We Are Family." Nicholson was giving an interview to a television crew directly under me. WAH, WAH, WAH, WAH, WAH. I decided to head home.

As I left, the coat check system was in disarray. Staffers were directing disgruntled guests up a stairway, where they were left to search the racks for their own coats. What's the use in being a Republican, I thought, if, after a night of electoral drubbing and $5 beers, you have to get your own coat? It just didn't seem fair.