Though few people outside the Beltway noticed, champagne corks were popping at the National Republican Congressional Committee last week, after Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., told the Philadelphia Inquirer that he was willing to raise taxes if the Democrats were to regain control of the House in 2000.
"He slipped; he usually doesn't make mistakes like that," says Jill Schroeder, press secretary for the NRCC. But she was happy nonetheless, because Gephardt's comments will make it easier for the GOP to tie new Democratic congressional candidates with tax-and-spend politicians of yore. "If we can remind people what life under Democrat control was like," Schroeder says, "there's a good case to be made" for voters to go GOP. Gephardt's Philadelphia story only helps the NRCC make its case. "The man stumbled," Schroeder says. "But sure, we're going to jump on him for that."
It's all part of the preparation for 2000, and the parties' search for a boogeyman. In 1994, President Clinton's myriad slip-ups and the health-care debacle helped Republicans win the House and Senate for the first time in generations. Many Republican ads actually featured Democratic candidates' faces morphing into Clinton's.
Then, after House Speaker Newt Gingrich went from hero to zero in one short election cycle, Democrats pulled the same stunts on him. As 2000 will be the first election cycle since 1990 without Clinton or Gingrich as speaker running for office, party stalwarts are trying to create some new beasts from the opposing party to use to scare voters in the coming election.
Republicans seemed to have found theirs last week, when Inquirer scribe Larry Eichel asked the minority leader where funding would come from for increased spending on education. Gephardt said, "You've got to have a combination of taking it out of the defense budget and raising revenue. We can argue about how to do that, closing loopholes or even raising taxes to do it. I feel we can find room in the budget to do what must be done without a tax increase. But if we can't, well, this is the paramount challenge we face as a society, and I think the public shares that view."
Republicans jumped on the remarks like preschoolers on a trampoline, and Gephardt soon tried to backtrack. The Associated Press reported that Gephardt spokeswoman Sue Harvey interpreted her boss's comments to mean: "I want to emphasize the importance of education, and to stress that it should be a priority as the federal government figures out what to do with budget surpluses." (Huh?) And on Tuesday, Gephardt wrote a letter to the editor of the Washington Times insisting that he has "no intention of proposing or supporting any tax increases. In the current budget situation in which there is a large and growing surplus, I believe we should first ensure the financial strength of Social Security and Medicare and then put Americans' tax dollars to the best use."
The "clarifications" don't mean much to Republican activists, who see votes in them thar remarks. The NRCC's Schroeder acknowledges, however, that regardless of his remarks, Gephardt is far from the polarizing figure that Clinton was in 1994, or that Gingrich was in 1996 and 1998. This, she says, is due to his relative anonymity, however, not his views. "I don't think Dick Gephardt is quite up to Newt Gingrich status yet in terms of his name I.D.," she says, though Republicans are clearly trying to raise the minority leader's national negatives.
And the search for a boogeyman goes on in Democratic woods as well. To hear Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokesman John Del Cecato tell it, for instance, House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., doesn't even exist. Majority Whip Tom DeLay, R-Texas, "has shown himself to be the real power in the Republican conference," Del Cecato says. "Hastert has been ineffective in leading on his own."
Del Cecato's analysis, not surprisingly, is a simplification of the Hastert-DeLay relationship, which is hardly the Charlie McCarthy-Edgar Bergen dynamic that eager Democrats make it out to be. But no matter. Hastert is cuddly and grandfatherly, while DeLay is a lightning rod for Democrats shouting "extremist!"
DeLay hasn't helped dispel the impression that he's calling the shots, however. He encouraged Republicans to vote against the NATO campaign in Kosovo, for instance, though Hastert voted to support it.
Regardless, the DCCC demonization of DeLay seems in its infancy. DeLay isn't even remotely the household name Gingrich was. His name recognition hovers around the Gephardt level. Which may be why Del Cecato insists that "no one person in the Republican conference will do as much damage as their agenda will. As long as the Republican agenda continues to be so out of step with mainstream America, we will continue to do well politically."
Which sounds a lot like what's coming from the other side. "We're talking about people who support extreme policies," says the NRCC's Schroeder. "We're talking about people who have a record for raising taxes. They were rejected in '94 and have been rejected for three election cycles now."
As you can see, neither side seems to have found its silver bullet. Which may be why the hunt for a polarizing boogeyman continues. Or boogeywoman, one might add, with an eye to the coming New York Senate race.