Newdysseus, Home at Last
Jude Wanniski
February 24, 1995


It is now 50 days into the revolution, halfway through Newt Gingrich’s Contract With America. How are we to think of it? Homer’s Odyssey keeps coming to mind as the best metaphor, with Newt playing the role of Odysseus -- coming home after 40 years at war. It has been my thought that November 8 was a political milestone marking the end of the Cold War, in a way the 1992 presidential elections could not. The voters were confused by the re-election attempt of George Bush, who successfully ended the Cold War, but was an inappropriate leader for the necessary post-Cold War reforms. So we have Newt Gingrich returning from the wars, throwing open the doors to the House, and finding it in complete and utter disarray. His wife, Penelope, is caught in the practice of loosey-goosey moral standards, flirting with a string of suitors. The children have not been disciplined and are running rampant. He checks the account books and finds they haven’t been balanced since he left. Now, Newdysseus is really a soft-hearted fellow, who loves his wife and kids, but after a few hugs and kisses, he is laying down the rules! Daddy is home. The suitors are pitched out the back door. The kids are told their allowances are suspended until they clean their rooms, scrub the floors, cut the grass AND learn how to salute the flag, say their prayers, and observe the Ten Commandments.

This morning’s lead editorial in The Wall Street Journal treats the revolution underway as if it were a football game, “GOP 50, Democrats 0.” The competitive metaphor in the Journal’s mindset is really not appropriate, because it forces us to think in terms of competition in which there are winners and losers -- a metaphor appropriate for wartime, but not peacetime. When we cast the revolution in terms of the American family, the harshness that Speaker Newt displays as he stomps about, cracking the whip, allows us to observe that he has captured everyone’s attention and is actually getting the House cleaned up, but he really is not landing any blows. There is a constant stream of warnings from the Democratic leadership about his fierceness. House Minority Whip David Bonior shouts, “Don’t hit me, you brute!” Rep. Charlie Rangel, the most important black political leader in the government, hears Newt’s insistent demands that the kids be rewarded on some system of merit, not merely because they show up for dinner, and casts the GOP leadership as Adolf Hitler! Hey, Charlie, it is just Newdysseus. The kids are all going to get fed, but now that Daddy is home, they are going to have to learn something about enterprise and discipline. The WSJ editorial puts it this way:

So now much of the criticism of the GOP program cuts take the form of moral denunciation -- taking food from the mouths of babies and the like. Liberalism’s 50-year-old foundations in morality are honorable, but in our time the repeated moral trumping became a bluff. The voters finally called them on it. Now the Democratic opposition’s task is to get beyond the dudgeon and denial over their defeated past and start bringing some value-added to the country’s future (why, for instance, they won’t offer a deal on cutting the capital gains tax is a mystery).

It is a mystery only to those who view politics as a football game instead of a family. The mystery begins to clear once you realize that it is not entirely the fault of Penelope that the House has fallen into disrepair and the kids are undisciplined. After all, Newdysseus was away at war for 40 years. What do you expect without a man around the house? The Democratic Party, the Mommy party, is deeply suspicious about the intentions of the Republican Daddy, because so many Republicans are talking about beating Mommy and so few are talking reconciliation. Charlie Rangel is being roundly admonished for comparing Republicans to Hitler, but when Newt blew his stack last month in a speech to the Republican National Committee, it was a mossback conservative I’ve known for 30 years who told me Newt sounded as if he were speaking in a Munich beer hall. Those of us who know House Majority Leader Dick Armey are aware that he is close to being the bleeding-heart conservative that Jack Kemp proudly proclaims himself to be. But when his “Barney Fag” remark slipped out, it sent chills through the Democratic ranks. The fact that so many conservatives embraced the racial quackery of Charles Murray’s “Bell Curve,” which consigns people with black skins to perpetual IQ inferiority, has also contributed to the extremist overtones of Odysseus come home. 

Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole has a reservoir of credibility and respect in the black community, but it is not as deep as he thinks it is. Kemp is the only white political leader in the Republican Party whose reservoir runs so deep that Rangel, on Meet the Press last week, said that “Jack Kemp is too good for the Republican Party.” Dole’s reservoir suddenly seemed shallow a week earlier after his comments on Face the Nation, where he directly linked his opposition to affirmative action to the fact that 62% of white adult males voted Republican on November 8. Last week in New Hampshire, Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas was asked what the first thing he would do if he were elected President, a position for which he will formally announce his candidacy tonight. Gramm instantly said he would sign an executive order outlawing affirmative action. On Sunday, Dole was asked by David Brinkley how he would respond to the same question. A year ago, Dole said he would cut the capital gains tax. On Sunday, he said he would join Gramm in ending affirmative action. The difference is that Gramm really means it and Dole, now that he is running for President, seems to think he has to say what Gramm says to keep Gramm from winning the right wing. It only reminds Republicans of the rap on Dole that he has no anchor. This is the direction the GOP will take as a result of the vacuum left in the party by Kemp’s decision to stay out of the race. 

President Clinton and the Democratic minority in Congress are ready to kiss and make up with Newdysseus, but he has to take off his boots first, put down his whip, and stop hollering. They are ready to do a deal on capital gains, but there has to be two sides to a deal. Dole has said he would happily swap an increase in the minimum wage for capgains, as would I. The Democrats would happily do the deal too, but they have to hear it from Newdysseus, whose sidekick, Dick Armey, says no. A deal can’t be achieved with a snarl or a threat by the Republicans and it won’t come as an offer from the Democrats. The lady can show a bit of ankle, but the man always has to make the first move, even if he has been away for 40 years. Maybe especially because. 

We probably will have another 50 days of stomping and yelling, laying down the law. The intensity of the returning warriors is already running down, but Newt has been enormously successful in getting the primary message across. When the hundred days are up, a foundation for further national debate on a return to peacetime conditions will be in place. The political environment will shift considerably at that point, I think. In the American family, after all, there is room for security and compassion and a bit of affirmative action, alongside discipline and merit and risk-taking and enterprise. So far, Newdysseus, so good. Welcome home.