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Excerpt: ' The K Street Gang'

Prologue: The December Revolution

Tom Delay and the Rise of the K Street Conservatives

This is a crime story.

It begins in October 1993, more than a year before Republicans took over Capitol Hill, when Illinois Republican Bob Michel, the House minority leader, announced that he would retire at the end of his term. Michel was eighty years old. He was first elected to Congress in 1956. His face was streaked with wrinkles, he wore thick glasses with lenses the size of car windshields, and he had little hair. He looked like a relic.

In a way, he was a relic. Michel's career almost perfectly traced the decline of the Republican congressional majority. By the time Michel retired from Congress, the last year Republicans had controlled the House of Representatives was in 1954. That was two years before he had been first elected to represent Illinois's 18th District. Michel had come to Congress just when his party was on the way down.

Yet, as the party declined, Michel rose through the ranks. He became minority whip in 1975, and minority leader in 1981. In both jobs he shepherded Republican legislation through the House as best he could. He was often referred to as an "institutionalist" -- someone who exploited the rules and regulations of the House for tactical gain. But more often than not conservatives referred to him as an "accommodationist" -- someone with no sense of overall strategy, who was all too eager to make deals with the House Democratic leadership.

Michel was soft, conservatives grumbled. He was afraid to take a stand against the Democrats, who, after decades in power, had grown decadent and corrupt. And Michel knew, too, that the younger a Republican House member was, the more he was itching for a fight with the opposition. As Republican representation in the House had shrunk, it had also become more conservative -- far more conservative than Michel. At the press conference announcing his retirement, Michel admitted he was "much more comfortable" in the Washington that existed "when I first came to Congress."

One of Michel's harshest critics -- and the frontrunner to replace him -- was Newt Gingrich, who had represented Georgia's 11th District since 1979, and who had been elected minority whip in 1989, after Dick Cheney left that post to serve as President George H.W. Bush's secretary of defense. Gingrich was Michel's opposite in almost every way. He was fiercely ideological, tirelessly combative, and endlessly inventive. Before he entered electoral politics, Gingrich had been a history professor, and so his mind, he said, was attuned to the faint vibrations that signaled the rise, decline, and renascence of civilizations.

Also, unlike Michel, whose Midwestern Republicanism had its roots in 1950s budget-cutting and isolationism, Gingrich was a true Reaganite. He was a supply-sider who thought that lower marginal tax rates would spur economic growth and increase tax revenues. He believed in American power, a strong national defense, and standing up to the tyrannical Soviet Union. And though his conservatism was not religious, he was nonetheless a cultural warrior, and thought that a libertine Boomer elite, reared in the student revolts of the 1960s, governed the country from the coasts in an increasingly out-of-touch manner.

Gingrich was also famous. His political celebrity had been growing for some time. He had first gained prominence in the early 1980s, when he used after-hours "special orders" speeches, broadcast live on the C-SPAN television network, to harangue the House Democratic leadership. He led ethics crusades against Democratic Speakers Tom Foley and Jim Wright. He argued that the Democratic Congress was plagued by scandal -- scandals at the House bank, scandals at the House post office, scandals at the highest reaches of congressional power -- and that only a thoroughgoing purge would set things right. He tried to combine the wisdom of a public intellectual with the guile of a public official. A simple conversation with Gingrich would be inevitably laced with references to Napoleon, science fiction, Churchill, the futurist authors Alvin and Heidi Toffler, Franklin Roosevelt, and Peter Drucker. He preached a transformative politics that would break the old systems of the past and help move America forward into the Information Age. Gingrich was the first example of the paradoxical species that would eventually proliferate throughout Washington: the progressive conservative.

He was an ideologue. But Gingrich could also be incredibly charming, at least to Washington conservatives, who swooned whenever the minority whip gave a speech about rescuing American civilization from liberal elites, unleashing the dynamism of the American economy through tax cuts and deregulation, and changing the culture of Washington so that power rested with the American people, not special interests. And all of Gingrich's speeches and articles, delivered at conservative think tanks and retreats and reprinted in the pages of the small conservative magazines, had one thing in common: They would usually end with assurances that one day, perhaps sooner than people thought, there would be a congressional Republican majority.

But this would not happen, Gingrich argued, as long as someone like Bob Michel ran the House Republican caucus. It came as no surprise, then, that within hours of Michel's announcement on October 4, 1993, Gingrich had, in turn, announced his candidacy for minority leader. It was no contest. As minority whip, Gingrich had already rallied a majority of the conference to vote for him -- more than a year before the Republicans would hold leadership elections in December 1994. Michel allies were left in the dark. A new power was rising in the Republican party, one that was uncompromising, loud, and visionary.

The problem was, the actual rising power wasn't Gingrich. In fact, Gingrich's rise was so stunning, his personality so polarizing, his visage so ubiquitous, that his quick elevation to minority-leader-in-waiting obscured another fissure in the House Republican leadership. That fissure was opened by the race to replace Gingrich as minority whip. And the man who won that race, which began the same day Gingrich locked up the post of minority leader, was ultimately to have more power on Capitol Hill than Newt Gingrich ever dreamed of having.

It is in the nature of revolutions that they consume their most passionate advocates. The vanguard's ideals are replaced by the faction's brass knuckles. The chain of events that Robespierre set in motion led to his death by guillotine in 1794. Trotsky fled from Stalin and met his fate with an ice pick to the head in Mexico in 1940. The dynamics of political revolutions in a constitutional republic such as the United States are nonviolent, but the parallels between political insurgencies remain. One group comes to power pledging reform; the reformers' newfound power attracts a troop of opportunists and hangers-on; the opportunists eat away at the reformist impulse from within. Newt Gingrich's Republican Revolution would turn out to be no different.

Three candidates ran to replace Gingrich as minority whip, yet only two really mattered. (Florida representative Bill McCollum always trailed the others.) In one corner was Gingrich's longtime ally Robert Walker, the fifty-one-year-old congressman from Pennsylvania's 16th District. Walker had been Gingrich's chief deputy whip -- responsible for "whipping up" support on key votes -- since 1989. He had the requisite experience, and he was committed to Gingrich's ideals and programs. His association with Gingrich began long before he joined the whip team. With Gingrich and Minnesota Republican Vin Weber, Walker had cofounded the Conservative Opportunity Society in the early 1980s, a sort of in-house think tank that sought to tilt the Republican caucus to the right.

With Gingrich, too, Walker had pioneered the use of after-hours speeches on C-SPAN. In Walker's case, however, this sometimes proved to be embarrassing: Once, as he delivered a televised special orders speech, House Speaker Tip O'Neill ordered the C-SPAN cameras to pull back -- revealing that Walker was speaking to an empty chamber. But such embarrassment did little to hurt his relationship with Gingrich, who had often said that Walker was his "closest personal friend in the House." Loyalty mattered, after all.

In the other corner was Tom DeLay, the forty-seven-year-old representative from Texas's 22nd Congressional District. DeLay was an experienced politician and a hard-core conservative. It was his fury at Texas's environmental regulations that led him to run for the state legislature in 1978. It was his distress at the burdens the Federal government placed on business -- more regulation, heavy payroll taxes, an intrusive Internal Revenue Service -- that sparked his run for Congress in 1984. Caught in the Reagan whirlwind, DeLay came to Washington at a time when free enterprise, not government, was sexy. Clearly DeLay would sympathize with business interests. He was one himself.

In December 1992, DeLay had been elected secretary of the Republican Conference. In a House filled with scalawags, layabouts, and diehards, DeLay was unusual in that he combined the convictions of an ideological conservative with the street smarts of a machine politician. When DeLay first arrived in Washington, he had quickly aligned himself with Bob Michel. The move made sense at the time -- above all, DeLay wanted to be close to power -- but within a few years it became clear that it was damaging his career.

This was because DeLay had made allies with the old guard. He had sided with pols who were on their way out. At no time was DeLay's miscalculation clearer than in 1989, when Gingrich first ran for the position of minority whip. At the urging of Bob Michel, who loathed Gingrich, DeLay had backed Edward Madigan, from Illinois -- not only backed him: DeLay was his campaign manager. Which turned out to be a bad move. Gingrich won the post by two votes, 87-85. And once elected, he, like all politicians, immediately started rewarding his friends and punishing his enemies. DeLay was at the top of that enemies list.

Bob Walker, on the other hand, was at the top of Gingrich's list of friends. Walker had run Gingrich's campaign for minority whip, and afterward became Gingrich's chief deputy. DeLay was left with zilch. "You could consider that moment my downfall," DeLay later told Fox News reporter Major Garrett. "But I think I helped myself right after. That same day Newt had to whip a vote. And on that very day I went into his office and I had to swallow my pride. I had to start from scratch. That's when I set my sights on a new path."

In truth, the new path looked a lot like the old. DeLay's standing had been hurt by Gingrich's elevation to minority whip in 1989, but not by much. After all, DeLay's candidate, Madigan, had lost by a narrow margin. He still had support. And DeLay was a prodigious fundraiser; he had been nicknamed "The Hammer" for his ability to nail down contributions. Yet a leadership position still eluded him.

DeLay's strategy was, on the one hand, to ally himself with Gingrich and the confrontational House members as best he could -- he led the charge against the first President Bush's 1990 budget deal, which raised taxes -- while building support within the caucus through spreading around his fundraising largesse. It was this strategy that led to his victory in the contest for Republican Conference secretary, which had put him in the position to run for whip.

DeLay also understood that in order to ascend further in the ranks of House Republicans, he would have to build a constituency within the caucus -- one untapped by Gingrich and his favored replacement, Walker. In this, timing worked to DeLay's advantage. It was no accident that Michel announced his retirement as minority leader a little under a year before the 1994 midterm elections. Michel felt that the 104th Congress, which would take office in January 1995, should have new leadership. Throwing his hat into the ring, DeLay saw his opportunity: Republicans had been gaining momentum in the past few elections -- forty-seven Republican freshmen were elected in 1992 -- and there would likely be additional Republican freshmen in 1995. If he could not develop a sizable constituency in the 103rd Congress, why not try for the 104th?

DeLay set to work. He hired political consultant Mildred Webber. Then he chose Dennis Hastert, a backbencher from Illinois, to whip support. The election wasn't until December 1994, but DeLay couldn't afford to waste time. He founded his political action committee, Americans for a Republican Majority -- known for short as ARMPAC -- to raise money for Republican challengers across the country. His consultant Webber also doubled as an in-house adviser to Republican challengers in the midterm elections. DeLay set up a phone line that candidates could call to ask for advice. He organized a training school where candidates could learn the intricacies of road signs and meet-and-greets. He traveled to twenty-five states to raise money and appear at events with various candidates. "I wanted them to think of me as their brother," he later told reporter Elizabeth Drew.

DeLay's ARMPAC was soon awash with money. He told reporters that he stopped counting after he reached $2 million, which he apportioned to about eighty Republican candidates. Most of those were challengers. But money wasn't everything. One challenger, Ohio Republican Bob Ney, later told the New Republic: "He made sure we understood he was just a phone call away. There were times we called at 1 A.M. in the morning just to ask a question. Sure, his money was crucial. But when you're out there alone, the encouragement is a big help."

As Washington trudged slowly toward the midterm elections, DeLay kept one eye on securing additional Republican House seats and another on winning Gingrich's old post as minority whip.

And then, suddenly, as DeLay worked toward his goal, something remarkable happened. After years of defeat and decades spent in the political wilderness, Congressional Republicans had a major success: They defeated President Clinton's chief domestic initiative, health care reform. The president's support began to erode, and Republicans felt energized. They began to see a possible congressional majority in their grasp. The internal politics of the House Republican caucus would have to wait. National politics took precedence.

This was also about the time, as we learn from the histories of Republican triumph published over the last decade, that Gingrich made the decision, in consultation with his pollster Frank Luntz, outside advisers Ed Gillespie and Vin Weber, and top congressional allies like Robert Walker, to nationalize the 1994 elections -- which is to say, run a unified campaign across the country that would serve as a referendum on the first two years of Bill Clinton's presidency. In a canny electoral gambit, the Republicans would attempt to win over the voters who had supported Ross Perot in the 1992 election -- almost 20 percent of the national electorate that year -- by rallying behind a reform program that centered on term limits, accountability, balanced budgets, and a strong defense.

Copyright © 2006 by Matthew Continetti. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Matthew Continetti