The Indianapolis News
November 19, 1998
Alan W. Dowd

"Great parties are those which cling to principles and ideas, not to men." So observed philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville during his trek across the United States in the early 1830s. If last week is any indication, it appears that the Republican Party is taking Tocqueville’s advice to heart.

Newt Gingrich, architect of the idea-driven Contract with America and subsequent Republican takeover of Congress, will pass along the Speaker’s gavel to Rep. Bob Livingston, R-La., on January 6. According to the Congressional research Service, Livingston will be sworn in on that date, and then as the new speaker he will swear in the entire House. Technically, the clerk of the House presides and hands over the gavel; however, in reality and certainly theatrically, the previous speaker or a member of his or her party surrenders the gavel to the incoming speaker.

Regarding Gingrich, surrender is the operative word. After a lifetime of clawing his way to the speakership and four years of fighting to hold power, Gingrich pulled back and sued for intra-party peace. By the time Speaker Gingrich announced his decision to retire from Congress, his would-be heirs had already lined up enough votes to challenge him in the Republican conference and topple him in the full House.

While many blame the mid-term elections for his ouster, the more likely reason for his forced resignation is the simple fact that key members of his party concluded Gingrich was doing more harm than good. He had become a lightning rod for criticism, a rallying point for Congressional Democrats, and an impediment to the goals of the Republican Party’s more conservative elements. (The failed coup of July 1997, led by two of Gingrich’s closest allies, was a reaction to all of these.) Gingrich, who once shaped the issues, had become the issue.

By stepping down, Gingrich understood that not even he was bigger than the party he made into a Congressional majority. By moving forward with its agenda, the GOP quietly underscored its grasp of Tocqueville’s admonishment: Ideas separate great political parties from minor ones; no man is indispensable.

One can only hope that Congressional Democrats summon the courage to follow suit in the coming weeks, as they weigh the impeachment of their party’s leader, President Clinton. Their party has a history of true greatness, but only when it stands on principle. In this century alone, the Democratic Party has offered a New Deal to working men and women, Four Freedoms to a war-weary world, civil rights at home, and human rights abroad. Those bedrock principles made the party great.

Today, the national party stands on issues of far less consequence: reforming the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), reinventing government, expanding AmeriCorps, and curbing tobacco use were among the key principles propounded by the 1996 Democratic Platform. For most of the last two years, Congressional Democrats haven’t even acted on those weighty issues. Instead, they have based their agenda on opposing the Speaker. In the wake of recent events, it appears Democrats will have to find a new enemy. They can no longer make Newt Gingrich their issue.

To their credit, Congressional Democrats have been loyal to their leader, quite unlike the GOP. In fact, over the last 10 months, House Democrats have done little more than support the President, averting their collective gaze from the mountains of allegations, evidence, and admissions piling up around the White House.

For both parties, Bill Clinton is now the issue. Just as Democrats have rallied around the embattled president, the GOP has rallied against him.

The GOP cannot return to greatness until its principles and ideas become more important than this president. In the 144 years since its birth, the Republican Party has been strongest when its ideas take center stage. Limited government, lower taxes, free enterprise among Americans, free trade among nations, and national defense were hallmarks of the GOP throughout the postwar era. None of those principles unify the party today. In fact, nothing unites Republicans quite like Bill Clinton. One wonders what congressional Republicans would do if, like Newt Gingrich, Bill Clinton were forced out of his leadership position by his own party.

Recent elections illustrate the consequences of this collective identity crisis. Voters are walking away in droves from the parties and the system in which they operate. While the Democrats are bearing the brunt of the losses, the trend is affecting Republicans, too. Fewer Americans voted this year than in any election since World War II. More voters call themselves Independent today than ever before. Indeed, exit polling data from this year’s midterm elections indicate that fully one-third of voters identify with neither major party.

The rise of the Libertarian and Reform parties at the national level is further indication of the traditional parties’ declining ability to generate the ideas that attract and keep voters. The emergence (and persistence) of Ross Perot is certainly a symptom of the major parties’ failure either to create fresh ideas or articulate them.

Libertarians, Reformers, and other Independents are not only gaining popular support; they’re winning elections. There are now two governors affiliated with neither major party. One member of Congress is officially an Independent; many others wear their party labels loosely. Third-party candidates are winning state legislative seats, sheriff’s departments, and municipal governments. Pollsters and leaders in both major parties mistakenly conclude from this trend that "independent" means moderate, when in fact independent candidates often espouse some of the least moderate ideas. Voters are not tired of mainstream parties; they are tired of parties without principles.

If the past year is any indication, as long as the Democratic Party clings to Bill Clinton rather than principle, it will continue to fall short of its great legacy. Similarly, as long as the Republican Party seeks to define itself as an alternative to the president, it will not become what it was and what it can be. As long as ideas take a back seat to personality, neither party will reclaim the disenchanted Independent voter who plays an increasingly pivotal role in our elections.

Just as great parties cling to principles and ideas, voters cling to great parties.