This was the revolution that wasn't

 

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 America.

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 to revolution.

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 individual.

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 going.

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 forests.

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 a loss.

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 changed.

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 hook.

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 country.

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 representatives.

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 rightward.

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 own ranks.

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.

Part of 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.

The 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.

Pity the 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.

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