WASHINGTON, D.C. - While the Republican Congress will not take its place until January, the first real political debate of this new era will occur much sooner than that. That debate will not be between President Clinton and House Speaker-elect Newt Gingrich, but within the ranks of the Republican Party.
The issue is GATT, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade that Clinton will take to Congress this week, and just as last year's NAFTA cliff-hanger was the bellwether of a two-way Democratic divide, this time, the vote on GATT will also hit at the core of the Republican coalition.
Indeed, this final piece of legislation to be put before a now lame-duck Congress will pit not two but four separate parties against each other. It will signal the beginning of the end of the Democrat and Republican two-party system and it will set the stage for the multi-party framework of the next century.
On the Republican side, these new groupings comprise a nationalist right, led by Pat Buchanan, which fears the loss of American sovereignty that a GATT agreement could bring, and a corporate right, overseen by Newt Gingrich, which is in favor of the legislation. For the Democrats, GATT will only further highlight the divide between Bill Clinton's free-trade New Democrats and a populist Democratic wing driven by such figures as Jesse Jackson, Ralph Nader and Michigan congressman David Bonior.
At the core of the GATT debate, where Congress will be debating whether to cede further U.S. trade controls, such as processed-food and pesticide standards, to a new bureaucracy called the World Trade Organization, lies the overriding role played by multinational corporations in everyday life. Clinton and Gingrich long ago cashed in with the big companies, but the Sovereigns and Populists are full of fight.
The split couldn't be more bipartisan. One of the major forces behind the scenes in the GATT debate will be Roger Milliken, the Southern textile manufacturer, who has been a principal financial backer of Newt Gingrich and of GOPAC, Gingrich's vehicle for shoring up conservative projects around the country.
But Milliken is an architect of the battle against NAFTA and GATT, and carries great weight within the councils of the Republican Right. So far, Gingrich has stood up to Milliken, but if, as House leader, he champions a pro-GATT stance, he is likely to split the conservative coalition, with the right-wing America Firsters breaking off on their own. In one vote, Gingrich could permanently lose the Perotistas, who went Republican on Nov. 8, along with a major portion of the party reliant upon the tobacco, textile and agricultural industries.
As tenuous as this coalition might at first appear, it may well have a wider future. "On congressional pay raises Nader and I were very much together," says Pat Buchanan. "On the trade issues, on sovereignty issues, and on reducing the wealth and power of the political class we tend to agree. But I think Ralph has a lot of beliefs in big government that I don't."
Though seldom considered as such, the Democratic populists constitute a potentially serious force within the party. If they were to strike out on their own, they could make a strong show of force.
"There is a streak of (populism) in Dick Gephardt," says political commentator Kevin Phillips. "He comes from a Middle-America cultural viewpoint, which is what I always thought made it plausible. The difficulty is, the gray-flannel Democrats never wanted a Gephardt. And the progressive, small-magazine left never wanted a Gephardt because they couldn't believe anybody who looked like a Boy Scout from South St. Louis could be happy on Riverside Drive."
In 1986 the Democrats took the Senate back from the Republicans, and two years later, Jesse Jackson, running on a left-populist platform, caught fire, first in the Texas primary, then in the Midwest, and raced through the South, into Michigan and Wisconsin before being defeated in New York by Jewish voters stirred up by Jackson's perceived anti-Semitism. The leaders of the anti-Jackson attack were the center-right Democrats of the Democratic Leadership Council. In the last presidential race, Jerry Brown briefly captured that same kind of political force in his much-maligned campaign, before he, too, was finished off in the New York primary, this time by Clinton's below-the-belt attack linking him with drugs.
Since then, Clinton's New Democrats have sought to kill off the populist left wing of the party, ignoring the demands of minorities for a strong urban program, betraying them in the crime bill, and earlier, openly fighting the populists in the NAFTA vote.
Ever since his election, Clinton has systematically excluded Democrats to his left. When it came to health care, he worked diligently to split up the single-payer opposition, and in drumming up support for his draconian crime bill, Clinton offered the Black Caucus humiliating compromises - like midnight basketball courts in exchange for votes that would send young black men to the electric chair. He made no effort to ease the deadly gridlock between suburbs and inner city, and for labor, offered not a thing.
After this month's election, Clinton promised to stick to the New Democrat agenda, and named areas where the two parties "clearly can work together" - welfare reform, congressional reform and streamlining government. Clinton said "he hoped that spirit of cooperation would extend to health care reform as well." Clinton has also indicated he'll accept various points in the Republican Contract with America, such as the line-item veto, capital-gains tax reduction, and reductions in federal social programs. Both sides are already cooperating on crime, and Clinton can be expected to side with any Gingrich proposals for speeding up executions - habeas corpus reform as it is euphemistically known - something Clinton endorsed in the 1992 New Hampshire primary.
In the debate over welfare, both Clinton and the right not only agree on workfare, but also on the use of the negative income tax - a subsidy in the form of income-tax credit for those people holding low-income jobs, often in the fast-food service industries, which while providing immediate relief for the poor also perpetuates poverty-wage industries. At the same time, Clinton has opposed raising the minimum wage.
For his part, Gingrich says he wants to attack the last vestiges of the New Deal, but he specifically exempted the Social Security system and Medicare in his remarks. The conservative right still needs the votes of older Americans for any serious run at a long-term political majority. And while Gingrich's "musings" have not previously been fully reported, he seems not to want to dismantle FDR's New Deal but instead the much-maligned poverty programs of Lyndon Johnson's New Society. Keep in mind that it was Ronald Reagan who draped himself in the mantle of FDR at the 1980 Detroit convention, and more recently Jack Kemp who made preservation of the safety net sacrosanct. On social issues, the Republican right has been backing off a hard anti-abortion line: both William Bennett and Dan Quayle angered delegates at this fall's Christian Coalition conference by failing to embrace anti-abortion stances. As for race thinking, Kemp and Bennett both attacked California's Proposition 187 on principle, and Kemp wasted no time in striking out at the thesis of "The Bell Curve."
With so many contradictions being played out in the thinking of the Republican Party, and with so many egos coming into play as various leaders size up a run at the presidency, the debate to watch won't be Clinton's relationship with the conservatives in Congress, but rather the argument taking place within the Republican coalition itself, where free-market libertarians will be pitted against authoritarian Christian rightists, and where race thinkers like Jesse Helms will run into Jack Kemp.
While Clinton attempts to obliterate his left, Gingrich will try to paper over the cracks in his own coalition, by attacking its common enemy, the elitist left and the "McGoverniks." The Republicans can be counted on to make war against pornography of all sorts, welfare queens and food-stamp scams. They will probably re-open Richard Viguerie's highly popular and immensely successful "de-fund the left" campaigns of the early 1980s, in which they sought to sabotage what they saw as leftish institutions, from the detested United Nations and Medicaid all the way down to NPR and the NEA. And you can bet money Jesse Helms will go after Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
With this new Congress shorn of its conservative Democrats (many of whom retired or were taken out by harder-line Republican challengers), the party's populist wing achieves new possibilities.
In the House Gephardt's status grows, as does that of Bonior, who managed the fight against NAFTA. In the Senate Byron Dorgan and Kent Conrad, both of North Dakota; Paul Simon of Illinois; Tom Harkin of Iowa; and Bob Kerrey of Nebraska all display a keen populist bent. And on the outside, Jim Hightower of Texas, now a talk-show host himself, remains a force, as do Ralph Nader and Jesse Jackson. As Nader sees it, "All of this sharpens the issue. You've got more liberal Democrats left in the House in the Democratic Party and you've got these right-wing maniacs" in the Republican Party.
But the future of the populist Democrats depends on the speed with which the two-party system disintegrates. Opposing an incumbent president from inside the party is not a likely course in itself, but fighting inside and outside makes more sense, especially if the Republican coalition fractures.
"The key to anything they do there is to come to grips with the central reality of the last third of the century, which is that the real drift both in politics and populism has been to the right," argues Kevin Phillips. "And in order to define a plausible launching pad for left-of-center populism, I don't think you can be plausible until you accept that. What it suggests is that you have to come at things more in the way that some of the people like Jim Hightower do, which is much more of an acceptance of a conservative cultural pattern and aiming your economics more at people who have a middle-of- the-road culture and are opposed to bigness in economics. But if you aim your economics out of a left-liberal culture or counterculture, basically it's not going to go anywhere."
For the moment, economics is the populist main credo. "My advice is to do the Harry Truman number," Jim Hightower said. "Put forward the most progressive plan. Put the minimum wage on the table at a $6 to $7 level. Put a real jobs program out there. Put a program together so working-class people see the flag flying."
Not that any of this is an exact science. And in their new hard-core leader, Newt Gingrich, Republicans have picked a real wild card. "One of the problems Newt is going to have," says Phillips, "is that what he says is now news, instead of being some kind of semi-cerebral musing that isn't reported. One of the things he did, one of the first pieces of legislation he introduced in Congress, was to create a mechanism to provide statehood for space colonies. I always thought that was kind of revealing."
In Phillips' view, the whole political playing field is changing. "I think U.S. politics is headed for an interesting period," he says. "I think of it as a second opening of the Bronx Zoo, and I don't mean just the conservatives by a long shot. I mean the whole gang from left to right. It's like the bar scene in `Star Wars.' "