by Jon Margolis
WASHINGTON, D.C. -
Here are two basic truths about revolutions:
First, like comedy, revolutions are easy to plan, but very, very
hard to pull off.
Second, we don't do them in
Well, we started with one, and perhaps
it continues. Since then there has been lots of change, most of it
incremental. For this there is a very simple explanation. Most
Americans have been relatively content, a condition not conducive
What America does do is hype. We
invented hype. Thus the tendency to describe any change as a
revolution in the making.
So in 1994, when
Republicans took control of the House of Representatives for the
first time since the Pleistocene, party enthusiasts immediately
proclaimed "The Gingrich Revolution." They were going to reverse
the New Deal. What could not be privatized would be "devolved" back
to the states, the counties, the villages, the
Nowhere was this enthusiasm stronger
than in the West. There, those who exploit natural resources would
take power from those who would preserve them. Come the revolution
(to use a phrase of yesteryear's left-wingers) miners, loggers and
cattlemen would make the decisions about public land. If it
remained public land.
Yeah, as the young folks
would say, right. Last month it became even clearer than it had
been before that this revolution has gone about as far as it's
In a nice touch of irony, this final
proof emanated from the revolutionaries' redoubt - the floor of the
very House of Representatives they thought they controlled. And
control it they did, but by such a tiny margin that their weakness
was more obvious than their victory. In passing the $12.1 billion
Interior Department appropriations bill, the House came within
three votes of repealing last year's Salvage Logging law. The vote
to tack on the salvage-logging amendment failed 209-211. Even more
astoundingly, the House actually did pass, by a 211-210 vote, an
amendment proposed by Rep. Joseph Kennedy, D-Mass., which would ban
construction of all new logging roads in the national
It passed, but it won't become law.
Speaker Newt Gingrich worked his charms overnight, and in the
morning the vote was reversed. It still had 211 votes for it, but
now there were 211 against it, and in these procedures, a tie means
But a tie vote on an aggressively
environmentalist proposal is not consistent with a revolution
devoted to privatizing, de-regulating and developing. Nor was it
lost on anyone that when some House members tried to repeal the
Salvage Logging Law last year, they lost 150-275. Something has
It's the same something which gums up
so many revolutions, left and right. It's the general public, which
every once in a while remembers that it's in charge here, if only
it makes itself clear. In recent months, it has made itself
somewhat clearer, especially in the Northeastern and Midwestern
districts represented by centrist Republicans.
In such districts reside most of the 59 representatives who
switched their votes on the timber salvage repeal. The importance
of this should not be exaggerated. First of all, it still lost.
Second, those in the know on Capitol Hill confirmed what any
experienced Congress-watcher suspected - that some of these
Republicans would have voted with their leadership had their votes
been necessary. In other words, the salvage rider was never going
to be repealed. Nor was the construction of new logging roads going
to be banned. Gingrich just let a few guys off the
Still, the very fact that they saw a hook
from which they wanted to be free indicates where public opinion is
on this issue, even though it is an issue which has no direct
impact on voters in the Eastern half of the
Unhappy about the malleability of some
of his fellow Republicans, Rep. Frank Riggs of California, one of
the loyal revolutionaries, suggested that the switchers were trying
"to pander to the extremist fringe of the environmental movement."
Allowing for some hyperbole, Riggs is not
entirely wrong. That pressure from the general public did not arise
unbidden. It was orchestrated by environmental organizations
suggesting that their members write or call their
But what else is new? The
anti-government, anti-regulation resource users have also
orchestrated mailings and phone calls and have tried to make
themselves appear more powerful than they really are. There's
nothing wrong with this. Fooling your opponents is as American as
pizza and bagels.
Alas, with the help of an
overly credulous press, the slash-and-burn crowd fooled itself, a
habitual error of revolutionaries. Republicans didn't win in 1994
because most people, even most Westerners, want to eviscerate the
Endangered Species Act or give federal land to the states. They won
because conservative voters were energized by a visceral distaste
for Bill Clinton and because not-so-conservative voters were
benumbed by their lack of enthusiasm about him. That's all. The
electorate did not take a quantum leap
But (see above about revolution and
hype) quite a number of Republicans thought they saw precisely that
leap. Hence their anger at what they see as betrayal within their
Students of revolution will not be
surprised at where this anger is now being directed. Just as the
Communists reserved their real hatred for the democratic left
(-Social Democracy is the moderate wing of fascism' - J. Stalin),
some of the wise-use advocates in and out of Congress are diverting
their animus away from the Sierra Club and toward - Newt Gingrich.
During last month's annual "Fly-in For Freedom" gathering of
wise-use groups, there was even an anti-Gingrich demonstration,
accusing the Speaker of being too green.
Gingrich's problem is that before he became Speaker his record was,
if hardly green, at least olive drab. An animal lover and nature
lover at heart, Gingrich supported the Endangered Species Act and
preservation of Alaska's Tongass National Forest. With those
instincts, and with a good politician's ability to read polls, he
has spent much of the last few months trying to change his and his
party's environmental image. Among other things, he went on Larry
King's television program in the company of tropical snakes and
cuddly animals. For his pains, he was derided as a "limousine
liberal" by wise-use leader Ron Arnold.
Speaker has to walk a fine line. He has to let just enough
Northeastern and Midwestern Republicans off that hook so that they
don't get into political trouble this November. But he can't
actually let them win any important roll calls. It isn't just the
noisy back-benchers such as Helen Chenoweth of Idaho or Richard
Pombo of California who insist on pressing ahead with the
revolution. It's also part of Gingrich's leadership team, including
Majority Whip Tom DeLay of Texas and (Natural) Resources Committee
chairman Don Young of Alaska.
And it's the folks
who pay the bills. The oil, mining, ranching and logging industries
have contributed mightily to Republican candidates. It would be
liberal hyperbole to claim that they own the GOP. It would be
naiveté to deny their influence.
poor Speaker. Not only is he torn internally, but he has learned
that the very revolution he helped to ignite contains within
itself, as all revolutions do, the seeds of its destruction.
Revolution, observed a German philosopher, "eats its own children."
But that was in Europe, where revolutions sometimes succeed. Here,
where they fail, they eat their parents.
Jon Margolis is a former Chicago Tribune
columnist who now lives in Vermont.