The Magazine

Senator D'Amato's War

May 27, 1996, Vol. 1, No. 36 • By TOD LINDBERG
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Even the venue Sen. Alfonse D'Amato picked for the opening salvo of an internecine war against the conservatives of his own party was perfect -- Don Imus's shock-jock, politician-larded radio show. D'Amato went off on a tear against the conservative wing of his party, one that he would still be embellishing upon weeks later despite a ferocious counterattack from the conservative wing and a plea from the party chairman for everyone please to shut up.

The highlights of the outburst:

. "Newt Gingrich is a smart man, but he misread the [1994] election entirely. . . . People did not vote to cut funding for the environment and cut funding for programs they care about."

. "People did vote for change, but not for this revolution."

. "Instead of moving conservatively to reduce the scope of government, we moved too quickly in too many areas and created a sense of unease about who we were and what we believe in."

. "Less than 10 percent of the people knew anything about the Contract with America."

. "I think we do a great disservice to ourselves if we think that people want a Republican party that is perceived as exclusionary. . . . We should not march to some philosophical ayatollah, . . . an ayatollah like Pat Buchanan."

The counterattack came quickly from House majority leader Dick Armey: "You know, his room apparently didn't teach him not to bite the hand that feeds him. Newt Gingrich and the Contract with America is why he's Chairman D'Amato now." And, "I would be thrilled if Al D'Amato would get in touch with the Republican message."

From Gingrich: "I don't know why he is wandering around saying these things. " From Tony Blankley, Gingrich's spokesman: "[D'Amato's comments] obviously reflect the liberal views of his constituents."

Nothing like a good inside-the-Beltway eye-gouging, of course. But there is much more to the D'Amato Outburst than that. In fact, this dispute actually offers the best window to date on the central substantive conflict within the Republican party: the perpetual tension between the party's conservative ideological wing and what has been called its pragmatic or moderate wing -- but might more accurately be called its merely partisan wing.

It is, in a sense, one of those storied "battles for the soul of the party." Except that this battle is unlikely ever to produce a winner. And the issue is not two competing visions of what the party's soul should be, but a determined effort on the part of the party's ideological wing to give the party a soul -- defined, delimited, and internally consistent -- and the resistance of the partisan wing to any such endeavor.

The essential characteristic of the conservative, ideological wing of the party is its belief that it knows, in general, the answers to all the questions that are relevant. Oh, reasonable people will differ on specifics: what kind of tax cut, for example, or where to cut spending first, or how many requirements to impose on states as the federal government devolves certain responsibilities to them. But those are matters for the legislative process to resolve. Previously resolved -- thoroughly settled, in fact -- are the Big Picture issues: limited government; markets and market solutions; more freedom.

The first serious attempt to codify these principles into a legislative agenda was the Contract with America. To the signatories, the Contract had two meanings. First, its substance; second, the way it differed from the usual pie-in-the-sky promises candidates make. So it was that once the dust settled from the election and Republicans found themselves in charge, the House organized its business along the ideological lines of the Contract. The process came with a fairly rigid enforcement mechanism. Promise-keeping was central in the GOP's pitch to voters in 1994, and therefore any deviation from the agreed agenda would have been (and was) portrayed as an act of self- destruction. One might vote against a particular piece of Contract-related legislation or support this or that amendment to it; but one could neither take a Contract item off the agenda nor construct an alternate agenda that would interfere with the Contract and the Republican budget that emanated from it.

The House in 1995 was, accordingly, a place where the dominant ideology drove the political machinery with a certainty that has not been seen in the body in 20 years or more. Moreover, this ideology truly did constitute a reversal of course, an about-face from the premises that had dominated the body, at times explicitly and at other times inchoately, since the New Deal.