GOP's Ideological Hounds Set to Pounce

Kevin Phillips is the author of "The Politics of Rich and Poor." His most recent book is "The Cousins' Wars: Religion, Politics and the Triumph of Anglo-America,"

A Capitol Hill record was set late last month when a newly elected president saw his control of a new Congress come unglued faster than at any time in memory. New political cross-fires and policy booby traps won't be far behind.

Take the prospect of a centrist Democratic Senate squaring off against a fiery conservative Republican House. It's the reverse of anything we've seen. The winner can expect a fat 2002 election purse.

As for the tax cuts just passed, the battle is a long way from over. The calendar could be a booby trap for the GOP, since the 10-year phase-in period for the cuts ensures many opportunities to squabble over whether it's better to implement the next round of reductions or keep Medicare or some other program from being jeopardized.

Besides which, the Republicans face the likelihood of Senate Democrats scheduling legislative debates and hearings to spotlight GOP policy ties to oil companies and drug firms. The energy-producer geography of the GOP's congressional and presidential coalitions assures a big fight between the oil-, gas-and coal-state Republicans and the energy-consuming states, especially California, that cluster along the Democratic axis.

Then there's the chance that the shift by Vermont Sen. James M. Jeffords from Republican to independent, which triggered the upheaval, is a leading political indicator in its own right, signaling more GOP losses among progressives and moderates.

True, should Senate Democrats stumble, they'll do so in front of a lot more cameras. This could give the White House a reprieve. Similarly, if President George W. Bush can duplicate former President Bill Clinton's success in putting himself at ideological center stage.

However, the larger news frame for the 2002 elections is likely to be a continuing Senate-House comparison, reminiscent of the one between Clinton and the frenetic GOP Congress symbolized by Rep. Newt Gingrich in 1995-96 . This time, the bogeymen could be House Majority Leader Dick Armey, former professor of eccentric economics, and House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, ex-pest exterminator, the powers behind the throne of the amiable and underwhelming speaker, J. Dennis Hastert.

The Republicans performed pretty well in 1981-86 under President Ronald Reagan, when they had the Senate but not the House. That's no precedent whatsoever. Senate Republicans have more stature and are more moderate.

A Republican House, by contrast, tends toward ideology. As such, its juxtaposition with a Democratic Senate promises a partisan brouhaha. The last such pairing was in 1857, when party lines were in ferment before the Civil War. Since then, there have been a total of 20 years when Republicans held the Senate without a GOP House, but not a single year of the volatile reverse--until now.

What Bush has to guard against is taking on the zealotry of the House GOP, while Capitol Hill Democrats look like a middle-of-the-road alternative.

The prospect of tax fights becoming an annual rehash is entirely real. Although congressional Democrats don't like how the Bush tax cuts favor the wealthiest taxpayers, they may spend years being grateful, at least in a Machiavellian, tactical sense. Back in the early 1980s, the excesses of a huge Republican tax cut ultimately forced a tax hike and the retraction of some cuts, especially for business. But within a few years, the mounting size of the budget deficits gave Republicans a good argument against new spending proposals. This hog-tied the usual Democratic policy approach.

The 2001 tax cuts could be a reverse crippler. The rising revenue costs of their gradual implementation could start jeopardizing budget surpluses and, in particular, the Medicare surplus. After a few years, Republicans may be defending cuts that principally benefit the top 1% or 5% of taxpayers rather than supporting a popular Medicare addition like prescription drugs.

Jeffords' party switch itself could signal strains to come in the loyalties of Republican progressives and moderates. Most of the big-name party switchers of the last 30 years were conservative and Southern Democrats becoming Republicans. Should this remain the larger backdrop, the Jeffords migration, whatever its immediate bombshell effect, would be the exception in a larger rule that favors Republicans.

But the Bush administration may well be introducing a new perspective and yardstick. There have been three Republican presidential eras since the Civil War. The first ran from the Civil War until 1896. Next, the industrial Republican coalition ruled most of the time until the Depression and 1932. Now we are in another GOP period that goes back to 1968.

This history helps explain the possible new yardstick. In the final years of the previous GOP presidential eras, as Republican conservatism got narrower and more committed to Wall Street and corporate agendas, dissenters split off and changed parties. In the late 1880s and 1890s, some Republican members of the old Civil War coalition turned Populist. A once-Republican Civil War general, James B. Weaver, was the Populist presidential candidate in 1892, and Colorado Republican Sen. Henry Teller turned independent and then became a Democrat.

In the 1920s, before the 1929 crash, progressives also began leaving the GOP. Republican senators who changed their party labels during the 1920s and 1930s included famous progressive names like George Norris of Nebraska, Hiram Johnson of California and Robert M. LaFollette of Wisconsin. Indeed, if you look at the history of party affiliations in the U.S. Senate, the periodic build-ups of independents and switchers are something of a guide to the major realignments of national politics.

If such a bolt of moderates and progressives from the GOP is coming in the early 2000s, it'll come from the least conservative sections of the nation--New England, New York, Pennsylvania, the Great Lakes and Pacific, where opinion is most out of sync with Bush on issues like abortion, education and the environment. Also, energy policy is looking more and more like a potential catalyst.

On the Republican side of the tightening regional lines are the oil-, natural gas-and coal-producing states, while most states where energy consumption critically outweighs energy production are in territory where the electoral votes usually tilt to Democratic presidential nominees, including California.

The Bush administration's ties to the energy industry can hardly be overstated: Bush, his vice president and his secretary of Commerce all have oil backgrounds. This producer orientation bolsters the GOP in 10 to 15 Western, South-Central and Ohio Valley states. But it hurts the party from New England and New York through the Great Lakes heating-oil belt and on out into the high-tech and high-energy-use Pacific. The failure of deregulation in California, sensitizing the state to these very issues, only increases GOP difficulties.

To be sure, there's more to the new president's problems than just policy. There's a missing gravitas. It's hard to imagine that Jeffords would have thumbed his nose at the White House if Bush had been a president who carried the popular vote instead of losing it by more than 540,000. A similar nose-thumbing took place days earlier at Yale University, where hundreds of students hissed to protest Bush, a Yale man himself, as their graduation speaker and honorary-degree recipient. His grandfather, a U.S. Senator, and his father also graduated from Yale, and both returned to the university to receive honorary degrees. Again, it seems inconceivable that Bush would have been booed by so many if he had a background of personal, instead of family, achievement and had been picked by voters rather than by U.S. Supreme Court justices.

Tax favoritism, party-switching barometers and energy politics are one thing. But an even more powerful factor will come into play if others, outside of the Northeast, start to share the view that a certain level of stature and achievement is simply missing in the Bush presidency.

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