Elizabeth Drew

What It Takes:

The Real SStruggle for Political Power in America

Viking, 384 pp., $ 25.95

Whatever It Takes is Elizabeth Drew's third book chronicling the political saga of the Clinton years, and it promises a "rich and dramatic story" of "the real struggle for political power in America" in the 1996 election. The author's publicists say she looked past the uninteresting story of the Clinton-Dole race to provide the "secret history of a titanic battle" for control of Congress. The principal players in this drama are a group of relatively unknown figures on both the left and right who head political pressure groups. Their influence on the 1996 congressional election, the author suggests, was decisive.

Drew has brought to this account the same clear-eyed and fair approach found in On the Edge, her account of the first two years of the Clinton White House, and Showdown, a chronicle of the 1995 war between the Clinton White House and the Gingrich-led Republican Congress. Whatever It Takes is much the shortest of the three, and it seems clear why: She tried to find a different way to chronicle an election year and chose an unusual cast of characters through whom to tell the story, and they didn't turn out to be as important as she had imagined they would be.

While we do hear about AFL-CIO political director Steve Rosenthal and other liberals, the main actors in Drew's account are on the right, from Ralph Reed and the National Rifle Association to the omnipresent conservative activist Grover Norquist. There is more here than you likely have ever before read about the National Federation of Independent Business, certainly more than you ever expected to read about the National Beer Wholesalers Association. Drew does her best to make these people and organizations seem important; she describes Norquist as "one of the most influential figures in Washington and through the coalition of largely grassroots organizations he had put together -- the nation."

The former Washington correspondent of the New Yorker, Drew hardly brings a conservative perspective to her reporting. But she reports on these right-wing activists with admirable evenhandedness and almost none of the condescension with which Washington journalists usually write about them.

Occasionally, though, a telltale phrase gives her away. She writes, for example, that Bob Dole's criticism of U.N. secretary general Boutros Boutros Ghali in his San Diego acceptance speech was "code for racism" and that President Clinton's decision to sign the welfare-reform I bill was "the largest blot on his presidency thus far."

Such lapses are rare, however. More typical is Drew's description of Second Amendment activist Ray Nemeth, head of a group called the American Freedom Association. Drew writes elsewhere in the book that "federal courts have uniformly held that there is no constitutional right for an individual to own a gun." But she is fair enough to write of Nemeth that he "would probably be considered by the world at large a 'gun nut,' but he is a perfectly normal, pleasant man who feels strongly on this issue, and it all makes sense to him."

As neutral as Drew strives to be, however, her viewpoint still affects her reporting in important ways. She exudes a faith in the efficacy of campaign- spending limits only a true liberal could have. She laments early in the book that campaign-finance-reform laws have become a "sham" and explains painstakingly how "soft money" -- special-interest contributions not subject to the law's spending limits -- "[grew] into a monster, overwhelming the original reform laws." She has special contempt for Supreme Court rulings that she believes made this development possible, especially for a 1986 ruling that drew a line between "candidate advocacy" spending, which the court said was subject to spending limits, and "issue discussion," which it said was not. That line, she says, "is a nonsense." The court in 1996 further decided that political parties, too, could spend without limit on their candidates as long as they did so independently of the campaigns themselves. Drew calls this "an absurd distinction that added to the ways in which the campaign finance laws were rendered meaningless in 1996."

But despite her dismay at what she considers the failure of campaign- finance laws, 1996 proved to be the year when fund-raising excesses carried a heavy price. The scandal over illegal contributions from foreign sources, Drew reports, stalled the Clinton campaign's momentum in its critical final weeks, holding his vote below the 50 percent he craved and preventing the Democrats from regaining control of the House. "It was," Drew writes, "as if the Gods had stepped in to punish Clinton for his arrogance and insouciance when it came to fundraising." Of course, it was not the gods, but the voters, who decided based on press reports that Clinton and his party had gone too far and punished them for it at the polls. The fact that democracy's most basic safeguards appear to have worked here, and more effectively than the Federal Election Commission ever could have, seems lost on Drew.

And here we have the fundamental problem with Whatever It Takes. Its premise is that the key players in this election were a small group of men operating largely out of public view in their Beltway offices. She makes a good case that as such people go, they were as influential as any. But she never demonstrates that their machinations were in any way decisive. Indeed, the evidence in the book suggests precisely the opposite. Consider the case of Rep. Greg Ganske, the Iowa Republican and one of three GOP freshmen whose reelection race she tracked closely. Unlike the other two, Peter Torkildsen of Massachusetts and Randy Tate of Washington, Ganske won reelection. "He had wriggled out sufficiently from the Gingrich problem," she writes, "and he had a weak opponent." In describing Randy Tate's defeat in Washington, Drew quotes a Democratic operative: "You had a fatally injured incumbent and a good candidate on our side. We ran a better campaign and had a better candidate." She does not argue with this assessment, and with good reason. Despite all the excitement in Washington and in the pages of Whatever It Takes about the power of political action committees, lobbyists, and campaign donations, the principal forces in American elections remain the candidates, the issues, and, most of all, the voters.

Contributing editor Brit Hume is Washington managing editor of the Fox News Channel.

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