The Republican Steamroller May Lose Its Steam
FOR some Democrats this year, the prospect of President Bush's re-election with larger Republican majorities in both houses of Congress seemed to presage not just continued one-party dominance of Washington but a new and threatening one-party dominion over the life of the nation itself.
"If President Bush is re-elected, we will be close to a tipping point of fundamental change in the political system itself," Robert Kuttner wrote last winter in The American Prospect, a liberal journal. "The United States could become a nation in which the dominant party rules for a prolonged period, marginalizes a token opposition and is extremely difficult to dislodge because democracy itself is rigged."
Maybe. From the rapacious capitalism of the Gilded Age to the cronyism of Teapot Dome, from the corruption of Tammany Hall to the cultural and fiscal excesses of the Great Society, American history is replete with examples of the price of one-party rule. At the moment, Democrats on Capitol Hill lack even the power to call a committee meeting, issue a subpoena or do anything much more active than complain.
But history also suggests a perilous twist on an adage as old as Athens: Whom the Gods would destroy they first give control of both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. With responsibility for all of government comes accountability for all of government, and the picture is not always pretty.
"There are three pretty obvious patterns," said Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the House, who should know. "There are majorities which are motivated to do very large things, which resonate with the country - the Homestead Act, land-grant colleges, all of the Progressive reforms, the rise of the New Deal. The other possibility is that you get a majority that doesn't do much bad and doesn't do much good, like lots of state legislatures.
"And third, you can have majorities that get out of touch and either become corrupt or get arrogant and isolated, the way the Democrats after the 1992 election clearly didn't understand the country and threw away their majority."
It is far too early to say which pattern will prevail, and in his first four years Mr. Bush has shown an uncanny willingness to do what he says and a corresponding ability to prove doubters wrong. But the new Congress will not even convene until Jan. 4, and Mr. Bush has so far sketched in only the broadest terms his agenda of overhauling Social Security and the federal tax code. His biggest ideas are complicated, may not attract uniform Republican support and will probably need Democratic votes to pass.
Certainly, there have been early signs of elephantine hubris, chief among them the House majority's willingness to rewrite its own ethics rules for the sole purpose of assuring that its majority leader, Representative Tom DeLay of Texas, would not have to step down should he be indicted as a result of any of the inquiries now swirling around him. Only a dominant party would dare do a thing like that. It was the Republicans themselves, after all, who instituted the rule that indicted members could not serve as leaders. They did so a decade ago after supplanting the long-ruling Democrats, whom they derided as ethically sloppy.
"It was a mistake, because it was a public statement that the party would change the rules to benefit one individual," Mr. Gingrich said of the DeLay decision. "That's a mistake, period. Are the rules subordinate to the interests of the powerful, or are the powerful subordinate to the interests of the rules? In a free society, the rules govern."
But there were other signs that the increased Republican majorities may have emboldened individual Republican members in ways that will make Mr. Bush's efforts to control his party's Congressional wing no picnic. Last weekend, conservative House Republicans, led by a pair of obstreperous committee chairmen, managed to scuttle a sweeping compromise plan to overhaul the intelligence-gathering apparatus that had been hammered out with White House backing.
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