In past days, when individual ambition burned less brightly in some politicians' breasts and party loyalty meant a whole lot more, what Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) did this week would have been unthinkable.
Gingrich, the House Republican Whip, took a walk on his president and his own chief, House Minority Leader Bob Michel of Illinois, on the toughest vote of this Congress -- the bipartisan budget-deficit agreement.
After accepting appointment to the small group of legislators who spent months negotiating the agreement, Gingrich decided the final product did not meet his fastidious standards and denounced it. His action, as one involved in the negotiations and as a leader of the party, made it infinitely easier for other Republicans to do the politically easy thing and vote against the spending cuts and revenue increases needed to slow the hemorrhage of red ink that is drowning the government.
Far from being apologetic, Gingrich expressed his pride in helping unleash what he called the voters' "tidal wave of anger" against the package. He cited cases where his predecessors in the Whip's job had ducked out on supporting some of President Reagan's policies. He even harked back to the literary precedent of the senate majority leader in Allen Drury's 1959 novel, "Advise and Consent," who opposed the president's nominee for secretary of state.
It's all very comforting to his conscience -- and, unfortunately, all too common a rationalization. It is rarer and rarer to find a politician who is willing to take political risks on a vote -- or even give a president or a speaker of the House or a minority leader or majority leader the benefit of the doubt on a close question of policy.
It's not just a Republican phenomenon. The two Democrats who are most visibly preening for places on the 1992 ticket -- Govs. Mario Cuomo of New York and L. Douglas Wilder of Virginia -- were, not coincidentally, the first two to pipe up with stiff criticisms of the package their party's congressional leaders had negotiated and endorsed.
A year ago, it was newly elected Speaker Tom Foley (D-Wash.) who was embarrassed by a revolt of Democrats eager to pass a capital-gains tax cut despite his strong opposition. One of the agents of that rebellion was Rep. Beryl F. Anthony Jr. (D-Ark.), who heads the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the very body that recruits and supports the Democratic members of the House.
White House officials, who were furious at Gingrich's defection, pointed to Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Tex.) as a contrasting example. Gramm shares Gingrich's aversion to higher taxes and his preference for deeper cuts in domestic spending. But when the final stamp was put on the deal by Bush and the bipartisan congressional leadership, Gramm stayed on board and supported the largest -- and most controversial -- deficit-reduction package in history.
"Sen. Gramm ... has been exemplary," said White House budget director Richard G. Darman. "I admire his performance." By contrast, Darman said, Gingrich, the other conservative firebrand in the negotiations, had proved to be "a distraction."
"I like being praised," Gramm said, "but I assure you the praise does not come from every quarter." He is right. The heads of 16 New Right organizations thanked Gingrich for his opposition and pointedly said, "We are dismayed that some people, including some conservatives and GOP leaders, are considering the option of raising taxes."
Among the those same ideological purists, Gramm damaged himself by his stand. Burton Yale Pines of the Heritage Foundation called Gramm "the major casualty" of the budget fight, so far as the conservative movement is concerned. He said Gramm "had built a lot of support for the 1996 presidential nomination as the logical heir to the Reagan legacy, but he's burned those bridges now."
Told of those comments, Gramm said: "It comes down to a philosophical question. Do you view your role as protesting or governing? I have always viewed my role as governing."
But in reality, Gramm has been as much of a freewheeling, independent force in politics as Gingrich. He came to the House in 1978 as a Democrat and in his second term was rewarded by fellow-Texan Jim Wright, then majority leader, with a coveted seat on the Budget Committee. By way of thanks, Gramm worked behind the scenes with Reagan's budget director, David Stockman, to devise the conservative budget that carried, against the Democratic alternative, by a handful of votes.
Expelled from the Democratic caucus for that disloyalty, he resigned his seat, ran and won as a Republican, and then moved on to the Senate, where he is now an overwhelming favorite for reelection in November.
The conservatives who cheer Gingrich and denounce Gramm say the latter is playing the insider game now only in hopes of garnering leadership support in his expected bid for the chairmanship of the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee next year and his possible presidential candidacy in 1996.
In Washington, no one is ever suspected of doing things for unselfish reasons. And that is probably right.