THE CLASSIC POEM SPEAKS OF CHILDREN NESTLED in beds on Christmas Eve, but this year sugarplums began dancing in GOP heads following Kentucky and Mississippi gubernatorial victories. "Don't blow it," the whispering began. "If only we're careful, we can win big in 2004."
This is all a far cry from 1994, when Republicans took chances and indeed won big. The GOP won by standing for something-but now, almost a decade after the Gingrich/Armey Contract with America helped Republicans grab control of Congress from the Dems after spending 40 years in political wilderness, little seems to have changed in Washington.
I spoke last week with Tom Coburn, the Oklahoma obstetrician elected to the House in 1994 who kept his promise to leave after three terms. "Compare campaign promises with what people actually do," he said. Many roll into Washington speaking of change and end up log-rolling for loose dollars.
Dr. Coburn's new book, Breach of Trust (WND Books), includes some colorful incidents, such as the famous 1997 encounter between Newt Gingrich and then-Congressman (more significantly, NFL Hall of Famer) Steve Largent. The Speaker lambasted 11 conservatives for abandoning the GOP leadership on what was normally a party-line vote, but Mr. Largent responded, "Mr. Speaker, I am not intimidated," and went on to say that he had stood up to 320-pound linemen, so he could stand up to Newt.
But the refrain in Breach of Trust comes not from Newt Gingrich but from C.S. Lewis. Dr. Coburn, regularly referring to Lewis's critique of "the quest for the Inner Ring," writes, "The sensation of stepping inside the Inner Ring of Congress is exhilarating, [but] soon the thrill of being in the Inner Ring of 435 in the House or 100 in the Senate loses its potency, and the goal becomes to make it into the Inner Ring of subcommittee chairmen, then committee chairmen, then leadership."
Dr. Coburn notes Lewis's view "that of all passions the passion for the Inner Ring is most skillful in making a man who is not yet a very bad man do very bad things. 'As long as you are governed by that desire you will never get what you want.... Until you conquer the fear of being an outsider, an outsider you will remain.' Unfortunately, our leadership and a majority of career Republicans never overcame that fear of being an outsider.... As a result, we governed from a position of fear rather than courage and failed to bring about revolutionary changes."
The immediate result of fear: Republicans lost out in the government-shutdown showdown of 1995. Dr. Coburn quotes former Clinton aide George Stephanopoulos's acknowledgment that the president came close to blinking, but reports how Bob Dole and Mr. Gingrich buckled first. The result is that federal spending continues to zoom up and pork barrels keep rolling out of the Capitol building.
The hard part is what to do about this. The theory most often suggested as a way of combating the "play ball with the status quo" refrain is the "let's take our ball and go home" counterrefrain of those who would give up on politics, or at least on Republicans. But those steps are also inadequate, and I'll discuss more over this next year the dangers of political separatism.
For now, here are five lessons I derive. First, renew the drive for term limits and other institutional means that can lessen the pull of the Inner Ring. Second, character counts: Don't just vote on the basis of campaign promises, learn whether the candidate has (like Tom Coburn) the internal moral compass to fight the passion for the Inner Ring. Third, remember in a fallen world that only by the sweat of our brows do we accomplish even small things politically. Fourth, keep pushing the GOP to take biblical positions on issues such as marriage and abortion, and point out that principle in this instance is not a poison pill: Republicans can win big by standing tall.
The fifth lesson is that conservative electioneering will not change America unless it is accompanied by compassionate conservatism. As Dr. Coburn writes, "The devolution of federal power I am advocating must be accompanied by a much more determined effort on the part of the church, in particular, to care for the needs of the poor and the elderly.... The best way to drive out the culture of dependence and entitlement in America is through the relentless love and compassion of caring neighbors."