Bob Michel is going to call it quits. Soon. Very soon.
There are signs, unmistakable signs, that “the other Bob,” not as flamboyant, as contentious, as fiery as Bob Dole, but nonetheless the titular leader of the Republican minority in the House, is not going to seek reelection next year.
Some of the signs are political--he’s not raising money as aggressively, and he’s parting with it more easily--but some are more personal. Sit with Bob Michel in his Capitol office, around the corner from the battle-scarred H-227, the room where Republicans struggle for control of the party’s agenda, and one can see a sadness, a longing, on the normally cheerful face. If he doesn’t quit this time (it has been predicted, wrongly, before), he’ll do it soon. Michel clearly wants out.
Congress is not a very pleasant place these days, and one could easily understand why a man of Michel’s abilities, always in the minority, always on the periphery, never chairman of anything, might decide that he’d finally had enough of the Democrats’ tyranny. Ironically, however, if he hangs it up, it will not be the Democrats who drove him to it; it will be his fellow Republicans, the young and angry ones, the ones who see being in Congress as part of a ceaseless political campaign and have little stomach for the serious legislative work they were elected to do.
Michel is often referred to these days as a moderate (or, worse, a compromising) Republican. He is accused of seeking consensus when his troops are seeking blood. Which shows that all things are relative, for Michel, often stubborn, often combative, has been consistently ranked among the most conservative members of Congress. Yet, measured against the majority of today’s House Republicans, who judge not by philosophy but by belligerence, Michel, a wartime combat veteran who still slugs it out for a strong defense, less government, reduced spending, is “not one of us.”
Michel’s strange position--he is tolerated, impatiently, by the troops he is supposed to lead--highlights a continuing dilemma for the Republican Party’s right wing. By and large, the people these young conservatives count as their leaders, their heroes, think they’re a bit nuts.
I was reminded of this the other day when Barry Goldwater, the man whose fierce advocacy of free enterprise and limited government energized the emerging conservative movement of the early 1960s, called the right-wing’s strident homophobia “just plain dumb.” Goldwater said the Republican Party “should stand for freedom and only freedom,” a position that is certain to be considered outrageous by many of his philosophical descendants who are increasingly statist in their desire to have government mandate codes of conduct they find acceptable.
Nor is Goldwater the only conservative “hero” whose views stray a bit from what self-appointed conservative spokesmen have anointed as acceptable orthodoxy.
Jack Kemp, modern conservatism’s most energetic and charismatic advocate of limited government and the free market, rolls his eyes at his party’s feverish worship of a balanced budget amendment. M. Stanton Evans, the former editor of the Indianapolis News and long-time chairman of the American Conservative Union, wonders how conservatives came to be the champions of centralized power in a strengthened presidency. Kemp; Evans; Martin Anderson, who was in charge of domestic policy in the Reagan Administration; William F. Buckley Jr., the intellectual leader of modern conservatism--all have strayed from the right’s own version of political correctness.
George Bush was never considered a part of the conservative movement, and it is only natural that he was often suspected of selling out, of being a closet liberal. He was not another Ronald Reagan, conservatives groused. True, but during Reagan’s presidency they groused that Reagan wasn’t a Reagan, either.
The man who ignited the GOP’s confrontational style and drove Bob Michel to thoughts of retirement is Newt Gingrich, the Republican whip, and the most likely candidate to succeed Michel as leader. In the style of the French Revolution, with each wave of leadership more implacable than the one before, Gingrich himself is now seen as insufficiently combative.
The Republican Party is in a struggle for its soul. The issue is not one of political philosophy, but of political participation. Bob Michel’s departure from Congress would not be the end of anything in particular. Members come and go, and the gaps are filled. But if what drives Michel out of Congress is his party’s frenzied drive toward irrelevance and dissolution, the entire nation will suffer.