A Veteran Moderate Moves On

By David S. Broder
Thursday, November 30, 2006

The House of Representatives wastes no sympathy on defeated members. So at the beginning of this week, Jim Leach of Iowa sat in an office almost devoid of furniture, the walls stripped bare of the mementos of his 30 years of service -- with just a few hours remaining before the painters moved in to prepare his domain for its new occupant.

Leach, who once was chairman of the Banking and Financial Services Committee, would have been in line to head the Committee on International Relations in the next Congress, had Republicans maintained their majority and had he been reelected.

But he lost, 51 percent to 48 percent, to college professor David Loebsack, as Democrats won top-to-bottom victories in Iowa this month.

Leach, noted for his independence, was the only Iowa legislator to oppose going to war in Iraq. That kind of record helped him prevail in past races despite his heavily Democratic district, which gave a higher percentage of its presidential vote to John Kerry than any other district held by a Republican.

But this year two special factors helped tip the balance against him. First, he became a target for crafting the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act, which passed Congress as part of a larger bill in October and was signed into law just before the election.

The Poker Players Alliance, which had fought the measure banning banks and credit card companies from servicing Internet gambling firms, targeted Leach and other sponsors with e-mails to its members and publicity in poker magazines. A post-election survey paid for by the gambling group found a net 5-point swing against Leach attributable to that issue.

John Pappas, the spokesman for the alliance, said it is putting together a presentation for the new members of Congress using Leach's experience to show that "this issue is not a winner for them; in fact, the main proponent was hurt by it." The alliance wants poker exempted from the Internet gambling ban or the ban lifted in favor of government regulation and taxation.

In addition, the Christian Coalition criticized Leach for his support of embryonic stem cell research and for his insistence that the national GOP drop a planned mailing attacking Loebsack on the issue of gay marriage.

"But the big force," Leach said in a conversation in his nearly empty office, "was the accountability thing -- the overwhelming dissatisfaction with the Republican Congress."

Because he can understand and even sympathize a bit with that feeling, Leach said, "I am probably the least disappointed defeated member" of the vanished Republican majority.

On the other hand, the man who was known as "the conscience of Congress" because of his personal high standards -- no PAC money or out-of-state contributions -- said he regrets not being part of the policymaking at "a really critical moment for the United States in its relations with a changing world."

And he worries about the political dynamics of a Congress that is more and more polarized -- and therefore less and less representative of the American mainstream.

Leach was one of eight members of the dwindling tribe of Republican moderates who lost their seats this election, unable to separate themselves from the public rejection of a conservative-dominated White House and Congress.

In Leach's view, while presidential races tend to pull candidates to the center, in Congress the abundance of "safe" seats, gerrymandered to guarantee victory to one party or the other, makes party primaries the critical elections. And in those low-turnout primaries, it is the activists -- usually no more than "one-quarter of one-third" of the electorate -- whose views prevail.

"The Republicans have been governing from within" their party base, rather than reaching out to the other party, he said, and now that Democrats have the majority, they will be tempted by electoral dynamics to do the same thing.

It is possible, Leach said, that a new president could change the pattern, and he is rather hopeful that his early picks for the nominations -- Mitt Romney and Barack Obama -- might do that.

Meanwhile, he is weighing academic offers from his alma mater, Princeton, and other schools and a possible diplomatic post from the State Department.

But given what he has seen on Capitol Hill in his 30 years, it is possible to believe Leach when he says, "I feel kind of relieved" to be moving on.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company