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  •   Ready To Rumble

    By David S. Broder

    Sunday, March 15, 1998; Page C07

    The effort and money expended in the first House special election of the year, a California contest won last Tuesday by Democrat Lois Capps, is a tipoff to the biggest political fact of 1998. For all the make-nice talk between the parties during last year's successful budget negotiations, the rivalry has never been more intense.

    Or more genuine. The differences in policy and even philosophy between the Democrats and Republicans are as large as they have been at any time since the New Deal. The great debates – especially on the role of government and the taxes to support it – now fall along party lines, just as they did then. Franklin Roosevelt made the Republican leaders of the House – the famous trilogy of "Martin, Barton and Fish" – the focus of scorn in his reelection campaign. Now, Democrats will make Speaker Newt Gingrich their bogeyman, and Republicans will try to do the same thing with Minority Leader Dick Gephardt.

    With Democrats needing only an 11-seat pickup to regain the House majority they lost for the first time in 40 years back in 1994, every open seat and every district won by a narrow margin in 1996 will be as fiercely contested as the race between Capps and Assemblyman Tom Bordonaro.

    That battle produced an unexpectedly wide margin for the widow of Rep. Walter Capps, who in 1996 became the first Democrat in a half-century to capture the Santa Barbara-San Luis Obispo district. Gephardt said her victory made him "very optimistic" Democrats will recapture the House in November. Rep. John Linder of Georgia, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, was just as quick to predict that Bordonaro will win the rematch in November, when the same two candidates face off for a full term.

    These partisan battles are for real stakes. They are about policy, not just politics. As National Journal reported last week in its analysis of roll-call votes, "If anything, the 1997 session featured a hardening of party lines on everyday votes. The partisan differences ran across the board on virtually all issues, economic, social or foreign policy."

    Much the same point had been made in January when Congressional Quarterly, National Journal's older rival, reported its breakdown of 1997 House voting. It found "virtually no overlap between the two parties" on the roll-calls where the lines were clearly drawn. On those votes, 88 percent of House Republicans and 82 percent of House Democrats backed the positions of their respective parties.

    Some voters decry this partisanship. I have heard many people say, in living-room interviews, that they are tired of politicians who put the interests of their party ahead of the needs of the nation. But the truth is more complicated – and more interesting.

    The reason there is "virtually no overlap" between Republicans and Democrats in the House is that both parties have been undergoing profound makeovers. The result is more internal cohesion on each side – and a bigger ideological gulf between them.

    During most of the four decades from 1954 to 1994, when Democrats controlled the House, a big chunk of their nominal strength came from southerners who were conservative enough to feel very comfortable voting with the Republicans on many defense and domestic issues.

    But now there are only 34 non-Latino white southern Democrats left in the House. The other 103 seats from the region are held either by Republicans, who provide the conservative core of their party, or by African-American and Hispanic Democrats who tend to be liberals.

    The other side of the realignment coin is the severe erosion in the ranks of moderate or progressive Republicans from New England, the Middle Atlantic states and the upper Midwest. Those areas, where the Republican Party was born, once elected dozens of GOP members comfortable about voting with Democrats on civil rights, the environment and other issues.

    But as GOP strength has ebbed in those areas (Bob Dole was virtually shut out of their electoral votes in 1996), Democrats have taken over those seats. Again, the result is fewer crossovers and more unity on each side.

    The differentiation is not complete, of course. Some issues obliterate party lines, and some, like immigration, energy and the allocation of highway funds, split Democrats and Republicans alike.

    But these are the exceptions. On virtually all the other issues, it makes a real difference whether Gingrich or Gephardt is in the speaker's chair, whether Republican Bill Archer from a silk-stocking Houston district or Democrat Charles Rangel from Harlem is chairman of Ways and Means. And that is why individual House races become expensive national party battlegrounds as we've just seen in California.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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