The Right Honorable Opposition : NONFICTION : STORMING THE GATES: Protest Politics and the Republican Revival, By Dan Balz and Ronald Brownstein (Little, Brown: $24.95; 416 pp.)

Goodrich is a regular contributor to the Book Review

Remember the first few weeks of the Clinton administration? Those were days of promise: Many Democrats, and many independents who had voted for the man from Hope, sensed opportunity, the chance to start again. New ideas were in the air, new energy, and it seemed we might at last see some new solutions to old problems, new ways of understanding how the American dream went sour.

The feeling didn't last, of course. Clinton left the gate quickly, putting all sorts of irons in the fire--national health legislation, a deficit reduction plan, integration of the military with regard to sexual preference, not to mention continuing talk (however muted) of tax, welfare and criminal policy reform. But the dazzle proved ephemeral. Clinton's initiatives seemed to fall apart almost immediately, victims of an astonishingly heavy fusillade from Republican politicians and, often, the recalcitrance of leading Democrats. Trying to deliver on the campaign promises that got him elected, Clinton must have had the stunned reaction shared by many other people at the time: Didn't incoming presidents usually get a honeymoon?

Dan Balz and Ronald Brownstein confirm in "Storming the Gates" that Clinton was cut little slack from the get-go--and further, that his lackluster performance to date was prefigured, and to some extent precipitated, by the Republican blitzkrieg on his initiatives. The Republicans are by no means solely responsible for Clinton's relative ineffectiveness--who could imagine a national politician so wishy-washy he seemed to agree with whomever he talked to last?--but they did take up an obstructionist position with unprecedented speed. Haley Barbour, who assumed the Republican National Committee chairmanship soon after the 1993 inauguration, displays minor regret when he tells Balz and Brownstein "We just hammered [Clinton]" from the beginning, but it's equally apparent that conservative Republicans did so in order to jump-start the Reagan Revolution supposedly betrayed by the kinder, gentler George Bush.

"Storming the Gates," on the surface, is a broad historical account of the renewal of the Republican Party over the last decade, one starring the likes of Barbour, Newt Gingrich, Richard Armey, Ralph Reed, Rush Limbaugh, William Kristol and the long shadow of Ronald Reagan. As such it is instructive and evenhanded, Balz and Brownstein (national political correspondents of the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times, respectively) being almost scholarly in their attention to political infighting and strategizing. The book's major and understated theme, though, is the rise of divisiveness in American politics, nurtured and emphasized by so many Republicans in recent years that the party seemed determined at times to push the Democrats, and their president, entirely off the playing field. It makes for fascinating contemporary history--and frightening, too, for one can't read "Storming the Gates" without having one famous biblical quotation come recurrently to mind. Can so many Republicans have forgotten "He that troubleth his own house shall inherit the wind"?

Balz and Brownstein haven't. True, they highlight the many ways in which Clinton also troubled his own house, specifically 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., by being "more clever than wise." Clinton sometimes relied on charm and finesse to try to forward his agenda when he should have confronted intraparty disagreements head-on; at other times he failed to seek readily available Republican alliances. Clinton's behavior occasionally made even liberals long for the Reagan years. The Gipper might have been an idiot savant, but by jiminy, at least he meant what he said!

For all that, though, the Republican exploitation of Clinton's indecisiveness seems much more damaging to the body politic. The corrosive name-calling of people like Limbaugh, Armey, Gingrich, National Rifle Assn. official Wayne LaPierre and televangelist Pat Robertson--who can forget the references to "femi-nazis," the inability of Democrats to be "normal," the government's "jackbooted thugs," and child-killing lesbian witches?--panders to fear and anger and feelings of grievance; it amounts to "a deliberate destruction of the middle ground," the authors write, creating "a dichotomy between a virtuous public and a corrupt political class." The modern Republican agenda is, in a word, negative--and the ultimate result, quite possibly, a sweeping, take-no-prisoners electoral alienation that damages Democrats and Republicans equally and makes civil discourse and compromise all but impossible.

"Storming the Gates," it should be noted, is not an alarmist book. Despite their years of Washington-watching, Balz and Brownstein have a fair bit of faith in the political system, or at least in the voters' ability to rise above it; they note in a number of places that politics is full of unexpected consequences, many of which bring the ideological pendulum back toward the center.

Clinton's attempt to be a "New Democrat" may have inspired "more new thinking in the GOP than in his own party"; the Republicans may discover "the very forces of discontent that have carried them to this high ground may yet sweep the prize [of lasting political dominance] from their reach."

With Gingrich's "contract with America," the Republican party may have found a way to channel the discontent it fueled into a positive agenda. What remains to be seen is whether the party can simultaneously rein in that predictable byproduct of discontent--hatred, primarily directed at those who supposedly cause the nation's problems.

If it cannot do so, the Republican revolution may well go down in flames, having created an uncontrollable Frankenstein's monster. It was not so long ago, after all, that the political career of Sen. Joe McCarthy, master of the hate-filled invective, was brought to an end by a simple appeal to comity--by a genuinely shocked lawyer asking him during the Army/McCarthy hearings, "Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?"

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