A couple of months ago, I called to shoot the breeze with a friend who books guests for conservative radio and television shows. “What are you doing tonight?” he asked. He explained that the guy he had scheduled to appear on a California radio show had canceled at the last minute and he needed a replacement. “What’s the topic?” I asked. “They just need somebody,” he laughed, “who’s gonna bash Clinton.”
Like many of his peers in the Republican revolution, my friend sincerely believes that conservative policy ideas will help the country. But the political war machine that employs him doesn’t ask him to sell those ideas, much less that the ideas prove helpful. It asks only that he feed the right’s appetite for enemies.
A year ago, Newt Gingrich and his band of guerrilla freshmen were riding high, having taken Congress after 40 years in the minority. But, like so many revolutionaries before them, they found governing harder than grousing. The citizenry balked at their attempts to close the government, shred pollution laws, and shift the tax burden from the idle rich to the working poor. After campaigning against the Democrats’ abuse of power on behalf of special interests, the new Republican regime changed the players but escalated the game. These photos by Larry Fink, taken on the campaign trail and at the 1996 Conservative Political Action Conference, capture how the latest purported revolution has degenerated into a smug orgy of self-aggrandizement.
Are the revolutionaries chastened by their legislative and moral failures? Far from it. Their conclaves and campaign rallies still bubble with celebratory chatter. If they’ve failed to use the electoral process to help others, they’ve succeeded in using it to help themselves.
It’s shameful enough when politicians who call themselves conservative advance their political careers with fiscally reckless tax cuts and the opium of optimism. It’s far worse, however, when political careerists use election campaigns to cultivate angry partisan audiences. Ronald Reagan proved that radio could launch a career in politics, but it took Oliver North to prove that politics could launch a career in radio. Talk isn’t just cheap for such men; it’s a living.
Today’s political profiteers owe their prosperity to Howard Phillips, Richard Viguerie, and other New Right operatives who pioneered the enmity industry in the 1970s, manufacturing angry candidates and causes in order to multiply their lucrative mailing lists. With Viguerie’s help, North has parlayed his political notoriety into a direct mail empire. Phillips has invited Pat Buchanan to run for president on the ticket of Phillips’ U.S. Taxpayers Party — an investment in demagoguery that would reap mailing list dividends for years to come.
Even the GOP’s nominal leaders are obsessed with campaigning profitably rather than governing responsibly. Bob Dole, who claimed to be “a doer, not a talker,” deserted his Senate leadership duties in May in order to shore up his image as a candidate. Meanwhile, Buchanan has refused to support Dole, holding out not for a policy job, but for a prime-time speech at the convention. Congressional Republicans resisted a minimum wage hike, then tried to embarrass Clinton by demanding a 4-cent cut in the gasoline tax. It’s “the least we can do for hardworking Americans,” they insisted. How pitiably true.
Political gamesmanship may win elections for the GOP, but it has undone conservative principles as well as the public good. Bent on making Clinton cry uncle in the budget debate, Republicans who speak of fiscal integrity and national security forced a costly federal shutdown and nearly triggered a catastrophic default on the national debt. Meanwhile, the derision that helped bring the Republicans to power in 1994 — mocking Clinton’s warnings of a health care crisis — has sabotaged their own ability to reform Medicare.
Most troubling of all, in contrast to the cautious moderates of yesteryear, the Republican congressional leadership has embraced the incendiary politics of rage and division. Taxes too high? The Republicans suggest abolishing welfare to unwed teen mothers. Worried about the job market? They prescribe an end to affirmative action. Families falling apart? They recommend more anti-gay laws. Afraid to walk home at night? They want to let you — and everyone else on the street — carry a concealed handgun. This isn’t a serious reform agenda. It’s national arson.
It may be mere gamesmanship to the politicians and the campaign consultants and the cult celebrities of radio, but it is much more than that to their offspring, a burgeoning generation of glassy-eyed ideologues. They’re doers, not talkers. When the bombs explode at abortion clinics, when the tax protesters turn their guns on federal agents, the cynical politicos who mixed the cocktail of national convulsion won’t be around to take the blame. In their plush backstage parlors, they will shake their heads in perfunctory pity before getting back to the business of slapping backs, trading business cards, and stirring the next round of drinks.
William Saletan is a contributing writer to Mother Jones. His last story, “Sin of Omission ,” appeared in the May/June 1996 issue.