There were two political revolutions in 1995. The first you know about: the Republicans won Congress for the first time in 40 years. This was less a triumph of ideology than an expression of public disgust--disgust with a corrupt, inept, exhausted Democratic Party,The conquering Republicans proved arrogant, myopic, unencumbered by nuance. And guess what? They are now held in about the same high esteem as the Democrats were last year. It has been a stupendous crash--not without victories, including a lurch toward fiscal responsibility (attended, unfortunately, by a lurch toward social irresponsibility)--but a crash all the same. The public is twitchy with populist impatience in the nervous '90s. It wants, it demands, it disdains, it rejects. It is not a very civil or subtle beast.
And so, gradually, we have seen a quiet counterrevolution--a rebellion of politicians against the people. Incumbents are quitting in droves: 32 in the House, 12 in the Senate. But more important than the numbers is the quality of the evacuees--sane, sensible senators like Bradley of New Jersey and Nunn of Georgia, Kassebaum of Kansas and Simpson of Wyoming; stalwart representatives like Schroeder of Colorado and Gunderson of Wisconsin. To make matters worse, they've been joined by an all-star team of presidential noncombatants; perhaps the defining moment of the counterrevolution was Colin Powell's decision not to run. This was the year the good guys opted out.
They didn't rant in leaving. They said they loved public service. They said they loved us. But the true nature of the message wasn't difficult to discern.' frustration with the rudeness of the beast. the hyperpartisanship of their colleagues, the vulgarity of the press. "Both parties are being pulled by their extremes," said Kweisi Mfume on "Nightline," departing Congress to lead the NAACP. The money raising has become intolerable, added Bradley. And the press is just interested in causing trouble, Alan Simpson piled on. Ahhh, the press: "It's you," a congressman told me privately. "Not you, Joe. But you: the press . . . We hate you! You make everything we do seem criminal. The job just isn't fun anymore. And these new guys, these freshmen: third-rate!" All right. All right. "It's a desert. It stinks," he continued. All right, already. (It's safe to say that private feelings are running high among our leaders.)
In defense of press and populace, let me say: much of the disdain for pols and politics is not misplaced. Washington is a rigged game--a capital of, by and for the entrenched. The Republicans have suffered, in part, because the public senses they'd rather cut Medicare than corporate welfare for their special interests. Still, the counterrevolutionaries have a point: our public ugliness is creating a civic desert. And it's likely to grow worse before it gets any better, even if the long-gnawed budget deal is done.
"None of our [presidential] candidates has a message of hope for the future," Republican pollster Ed Goeas told CNN recently. That may be a bit of an exaggeration. Lamar Alexander, the former governor of Tennessee, claims to be an optimist--but his vision has been, so far, a straitened one: dismantle Washington and let local government do the work. Ho hum. Steve Forbes, the gazillionaire playpol, is another optimist: America will be a happier place, he says, if we allow him to pay taxes at the same rate as his servants. Sen. Phil Gramm would also claim to be an optimist: "We are one victory away from . . . getting our money back," he proclaimed, announcing for the presidency. One can imagine that sentiment etched in marble, adorning the rotunda of the Phil Gramm Memorial--if one can imagine a Phil Gramm Memorial. Bob Dole, the likely GOP nominee, is not an optimist. He's seen too much to be a visionary. He rations hope and vision, applies it sparingly, like his hair dye--convinced, rightly, that if they hire him for the job, the American people will be looking for a grown-up, pragmatic, cut-the-deal president. In other words: he aspires to be our fallback position.
But so does Bill Clinton. The Man from Hope has become the Man from Fear. His most successful year as president has been his least responsible. His message is reverse Gramm-ism: you are one defeat away from having your (pension) money taken away from you. Ask his aides what the plans are for a second term and eyes roll. There are none. He will spend much of 1996 talking about economic security--but there's not much government can do to insulate us against the uncertainties of the market. His Republican opponent will talk about cultural security--but it's hard to restore a national sense of propriety while practicing wanton market-worship.
Still, if we are lucky, 1996 will be about these longstanding national themes: economic security and cultural security. If we are unlucky, it will be about 1995. Indeed, it seems possible that much of the election of 1996 is contained on two snippets of videotape filmed last October. One has Bill Clinton telling fat-cat contributors: "It may surprise you to know that I think I raised [your taxes] too much, too." Republicans will wear that out in 1996. And Democrats will wear out the other snippet, Bob Dole telling the American Conservative Union: "I was there fighting the fight, voting against Medicare, one of 12, because we knew it wouldn't work in 1965."
It would be nice if the Republicans and Democrats could get together and declare a moratorium on the use of those two sound bites. They won't, though. After the revolution and the counterrevolution, the only political animals left are scavengers. Their goal isn't glory, but survival. They eat what's there. .