Freshly-retired Washington Post honcho Robert Kaiser was a front-row witness to the Reagan Revolution and its consequences, and he did not particularly care for what he witnessed. His long Goodbye-Cruel-World farewell to Washington DC is an interesting read, even if it hardly breaks any new historical ground.
He places particular blame on Tony Coelho for leading the Democrats astray in the 1980’s in pursuit of corporate cash. I found that insightful, as I have generally placed most of the blame for that on the ascendancy of the Democratic Leadership Council, as well as political exigencies flowing from 1970’s Supreme Court rulings on campaign financing.
The financial edge enjoyed by corporations, conservatives, and Republicans has a qualitative dimension not readily grasped from a superficial analysis of the data on contributions. Corporate capital has managed to organize itself in such a way as to maximize its influence at critical pressure points in the system. Business PACs have effectively targeted members of key congressional committees and subcommittees vital to their particular interests. A good example is the House Energy and Commerce Committee. In 1982, labor PACs contributed the sizable sum of $665,757 to members of this Committee. However, the combined PAC contributions solely from energy companies ($468,820) and from the real estate and construction industry ($223,223) surpassed total labor contributions. Additional contributions to committee members from PACs linked to banking and finance and corporations involved in food automobiles, communications, doctors, hospitals, pharmaceutical, insurance, aerospace, and other firms together matched the labor contributions a second time over. The situation was similar for other key committees, such as the Senate Finance Committee and the House Ways and Means Committee, where business PACs accounted for 68 percent ($11 million) of all PAC contributions made to committee members in 1984.
The need to attract corporate PAC contributions has strengthened the hand of Democratic leaders who seek to cure the party’s ills by loosening its ties to minorities the unions, and the working class and poor. Stung by their loss of the presidency and control of the Senate in 1980, the Democrats decided to seek corporate PAC contributions aggressively. Rep. Tony Coelho (D Calif.) persuaded big Democratic financiers to contribute to the party’s congressional fund and at the same time helped the Democrats to organize more effectively to solicit corporate PAC donations. Both major parties and politicians within each party established “clubs” to facilitate interaction between wealthy contributors and politicians. (Richard Gephardt’s “Democratic Leadership Council” is an example.) Major party figures gave speeches and held conferences for such clubs, but Coelho indicated that political education was hardly the driving motivation for joining. “Access. Access,” he told columnist Elizabeth Drew, “that’s the name of the game. They meet with the leadership and with the chairmen of the committees. We don’t sell legislation: we sell the opportunity to be heard.”
Impressive signs of Democratic gains in fundraising lie in the comparisons of contributions to the congressional elections in 1984 and the off-year elections in 1986. In this two-year period, Democratic challengers and candidates for open seat races greatly increased their share of contributions from corporate, trade, and “nonconnected” PACs, while maintaining their near monopoly on labor PACs. Democratic candidates’ share of corporate contributions rose from only 8 percent in 1984 to 28 percent in the 1986 off-year elections. In 1988, their share compared to contributions to Republicans rose to 27 percent.
Despite (or because of) the Democratic gains in fundraising, it is clear that the ideological pendulum did not swing back toward liberalism. The Democrats’ courting of corporate and trade PACs reflected a swing to the right in the congressional wing of the party. As the National Journal pointed out after the 1984 elections, business gave more to the Democrats because “there was a dearth of vulnerable Democratic incumbents with voting records that the business community opposed.” The American Enterprise Institute’s Michael Malbin attributed shifting corporate funding to “congressional Democrats…speaking more about capital formation and other business issues.” Representative Coelho’s attempts to attract corporate money prompted the chair of the PAC funded by Tenneco Inc., the third largest corporate PAC giver in 1984 and fourth largest in 1986, to comment that “the political climate has changed somewhat and is more [supportive of] the private sector.”
Rep. Coehlo went on to serve as Majority Whip and eventually as Al Gore’s campaign chairman, before an illness forced him to hand his responsibilities over to William Daley.
On the Republican side, Mr. Kaiser is much harsher in his criticisms, and he is unsparing in his assessment of Newt Gingrich:
Newt Gingrich understood the opportunity those ’80s Democrats had created for Republicans. Gingrich was the most effective and most destructive political figure I encountered in five decades covering Washington. He invented the partisan warfare that has produced today’s gridlock. He encouraged the disregard for facts that has defiled our public life. He believed, fiercely, that the end justified the means. The end he sought was a Republican House, and he had no qualms about how it was achieved or maintained. He and his successor as lead enforcer, Rep. Tom DeLay of Texas, helped destroy collegiality in Washington.
I’d agree that Gingrich and DeLay helped destroy collegiality in Washington, but I think they are products of the real criminal in this case, which is the Conservative Movement. I believe that collegiality was destroyed when conservatives achieved a certain critical mass of control over the Republican Party, and that mass was met after the 1994 midterms.
The other big factor in killing collegiality was that the generation that went off to fight in World War Two got old and began retiring. That generation, unlike the Baby Boomers who followed them, had enough shared experience to understand and even like each other across partisan lines.
On the whole, though, I blame conservatives more than Boomers for the current state of American politics. What the country needs is for some group of concerned citizens to rise up and take back control of a substantial part of the Grand Old Party.
Until that happens, more and more people will leave Washington, like Mr. Kaiser, in disgust.