The Revolution with Steve Kornacki
Episode 4: False Spring
We enter the era of President Bill Clinton. In the 1992 election, Democrats win the White House for the first time since the 1970s and enjoy solid majorities in the House and Senate. They seem poised to deliver on an ambitious agenda. But scandals start erupting on a regular basis. By June, Time magazine publishes a cover naming Bill Clinton “The Incredible Shrinking President.” And by August, Republicans are crowing about a bruising battle over Clinton’s budget. Republicans will now tell voters that Democrats are the party that supports the largest tax increase in history. This is the contrast Gingrich has spent his whole career trying to create — and it will catapult him towards the role of House Speaker.
Announcer: Ladies and gentlemen, the President-elect William Jefferson Clinton.
Steve Kornacki: It’s January 20th, 1993, and Bill Clinton is being sworn into office by Chief Justice William Rehnquist. He is about to become the first Democratic president since Jimmy Carter left office a dozen years earlier.
Bill Clinton: Preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.
William Rehnquist: So help me God.
Bill Clinton: So help me God.
William Rehnquist: Congratulations.
Steve Kornacki: It’s 40 degrees on the National Mall and a chilly wind blows as Clinton delivers his inaugural address, but he’s talking about spring.
Bill Clinton: A spring reborn in the world’s oldest democracy that brings forth the vision and courage to reinvent America.
Steve Kornacki: He acknowledges the one-term president he’s just unseated.
Bill Clinton: I salute my predecessor, President Bush, for his half-century of service to America.
Steve Kornacki: For America, this is a moment of generational transformation. Bush and the six presidents before him were all part of the World War II generation. Bill Clinton is now America’s first baby boomer president. He’s won this office by promising change.
The sluggish economy was a top issue in the campaign and Clinton scored points by betraying bushes out of touch with everyday Americans. For Bill Clinton’s party though, this moment is much bigger. They’ve controlled the house for four decades at this point in the Senate for most of that time too.
But other than Carter’s ill-fated single term, the White House has eluded them for the past generation. This was said to be Bill Clinton's big achievement in the campaign. He had broken the Republican lock on the Electoral College.
And now that he’s been sworn in, Democrats finally have full control of Washington. Massive congressional majorities ready to move on a wish-list years in the making and a president ready to sign whatever they pass. Their ambitions are vast.
Bill Clinton: And so, today we pledge an end to the era of deadlock and drift and a new season of American renewal has begun.
Steve Kornacki: Maya Angelou recites a poem. She stays on theme.
Maya Angelou: Here, on the pulse of this new day. You may have the grace to look up and out and into your sister’s eyes, and into. Your brother’s face, your country. And say simply. Very simply. With hope, good morning.
Steve Kornacki: Republicans are an afterthought. The White House has been their bulwark against the permanent Democratic Congress, but now they’ve lost it to a Democrat who seems to have considerable political savvy.
Vin Weber: I was impressed with him as, and I still am, I mean as one of the master politicians, certainly of my lifetime.
Steve Kornacki: Vin Weber, former Republican congressman, co-founder of the Conservative Opportunity Society, told me that when Bill Clinton took office, the Republicans knew they had their work cut out for them.
As a candidate, Clinton had endured multiple scandals that were seen initially as politically fatal. But not only had he weathered them, he ended up winning by a comfortable margin.
Vin Weber: And in time with Gingrich, I said we’ve got to be careful about how we deal with him, but we can’t give away our basic principles and we can’t give away our basic strategy.
Bryant Gumbel: Good morning.
Steve Kornacki: And yet, for all of Clinton’s talent.
Bryant Gumbel: For one glorious night, the president of the United States was also the king of rock ‘n roll.
President Bill Clinton tooted his own horn at the Arkansas Ball --
Steve Kornacki: And for all the Democrats grand plans, within 48 hours of taking office the party was over. Newt Gingrich had kept quiet on Inauguration Day, but the new president had already handed him the ingredients to ignite the kind of populist uproar that had become his specialty.
For almost 15 years, Gingrich had employed his brand politics against some big names; Charlie Diggs, Tip O’Neill, Jim Wright, even George H. W. Bush. Now though, he would amplify everything against his biggest target yet.
This is "The Revolution." I’m Steve Kornacki.
Episode 4: False Spring.
Zoe Baird is supposed to represent all that is fresh and forward-looking about the new president. A modern feminist ideal. At age 40 she’s an accomplished lawyer. She served in the Carter White House, worked her way up the corporate legal ladder. And now Clinton has nominated her to be his attorney general.
When he made the pick in December 1992, her confirmation looked like a cake walk. She was poised to become America's first-ever female attorney general. But then, one week before Inauguration Day, everything turns. The “New York Times” breaks the news and the rest of the media snaps it up.
Lisa Myers: Baird employed a Peruvian couple in this country illegally for almost two years. One is a babysitter, the other is a driver.
Steve Kornacki: This is a story from NBC’s Lisa Myers.
Lisa Myers: The attorney general designate says the IRS had checked for back taxes and penalties earlier this month.
Dan Stein: This case exposes America’s dirty little secret.
Lisa Myers: Two secrets really, one, that an estimated 1.5 million Americans flout the law by failing to pay Social Security taxes on household help; the other, that many of those involved illegal aliens.
Steve Kornacki: Technically Baird and her husband had violated two laws and they were paying the couple below minimum wage. But the provision against employing people without papers had never been enforced in Connecticut where the family lived.
Even when the news breaks much of Washington shrugs. Among the power class, what Baird has done is not that uncommon. From both sides of the aisle members of Congress indicate they see an honest mistake. Nothing that might alter Baird’s glide path to confirmation.
But New Gingrich understands how something like this might look to people who aren’t part of the power class or anywhere near it. A day after The Times’ scoop, he reads out a statement.
Newt Gingrich: Any small business that hired illegal aliens and failed to pay Social Security tax will be in deep trouble. It is inconceivable to have an attorney general nominee, someone who has sworn to uphold and enforce the nation’s law, doing something like this.
Steve Kornacki: Gingrich is pointing out what he calls a double standard.
Newt Gingrich: I call on President-elect Bill Clinton to withdraw the nomination of Zoe Baird as attorney general if these charges are true.
Steve Kornacki: Others are sensing the potency of what the press has now dubbed Nannygate and are joining in.
Rush Limbaugh: Folks, she did a no-no. She put an ad in the paper, wanted to hire a nanny. No Americans applied, so she hired a couple from Peru, illegal immigrants, folks.
Steve Kornacki: Rush Limbaugh is all over it and he’s gotten millions of listeners at this point, and it doesn’t stay in the world of conservative talk radio. Major national media outlets now recognize and feed the brewing backlash.
On ABC News Cokie Roberts says that Baird, “made enough money to hire Mary Poppins.” Gingrich’s gut is right. Yet again he’s found that populous nerve. Just five days after the story breaks, it’s time for Baird’s confirmation hearing. And this is just one day before Clinton’s inauguration.
The senators on the committee tell Baird they’re getting it from all sides. The chair of Senate Judiciary is a senator from Delaware named Joe Biden.
Joe Biden: It is my impression that it is not just me but a significant portion of the population that finds your action and action of your husband to be, on its face, inconsistent with the responsibilities that you will have as attorney general of the United States to enforce the very laws you knowingly violated.
Steve Kornacki: Alan Simpson is a moderate Republican from Wyoming and another member of the committee. He describes reaction from around the country.
Alan Simpson: Much of it from women, who, I think, feel that they as single parents or working mothers did not have this advantage. And there’s something stirring there that is very real.
Steve Kornacki: Before the committee can even vote on the nomination, and just two days after Clinton’s inauguration, Zoe Baird withdraws.
Garrick Utley: And finally, the Zoe Baird story.
Steve Kornacki: That Saturday evening, NBC anchor Garrick Utley concludes “Nightly News” with this commentary.
Garrick Utley: What was it about? Moral outrage that a would-be attorney general broke a law? Hardly. Was it envy, a popular reaction to the power and privilege of affluence? That too, no doubt.
But what happened to Zoe Baird, I think, was even more than that. It was a warning shot aimed directly at Bill Clinton. The public’s message to Bill Clinton was, to amend a famous phrase, “Big Brother, we are watching you closely.”
Steve Kornacki: This is supposed to be Bill Clinton’s honeymoon. Instead, he’s already on the defensive taking on political water and the Baird saga is only the beginning.
The coming weeks and months are dominated by stories about missteps, controversies, and political blunders by the new administration.
Andrea Mitchell: Gays in the military was not the issue Bill Clinton would have chosen for his first presidential news conference.
Bill Clinton: This compromise is not everything I would have hoped for or everything that I have stood for, but it is plainly a substantial step in the right direction.
Jim Miklaszewski: The White House sacking of the travel office is the story that won’t go away.
Tom Pettit: And a lot of interest in the president’s haircut, the one that cost $200 and was holding up traffic in Los Angeles International Airport while a Beverly Hills hairstylist --
Steve Kornacki: Instead of a honeymoon, the new president finds himself enduring a political nightmare. His poll numbers plummet faster than any of his predecessors. It lifts the spirits of the Republican Minority and emboldens them, too, and it leads the press to ask if Bill Clinton and his team are simply in over their heads.
Dick Gephardt was, by then, the House Majority Leader. He told me it was starting to feel very different in Washington.
Dick Gephardt: You did have a new media atmosphere in the country. A lot of people were listening out in the Midwest, and the South especially, to Rush Limbaugh every day. And you'd hear his stuff coming back to you and you'd go home and talk to people.
Rush Limbaugh: Hey, folks. Liberals are in the White House. You know what you need? You need my newsletter. The Limbaugh Letter attacks and exposes the liberals' real agenda, which is tax and spend. Order my --
Steve Kornacki: In the spring of 1993, Clinton is facing a full-fledged populist backlash fueled in part by Limbaugh’s three-hour daily radio slot and his syndicated TV show.
Rush Limbaugh: You can still get my jumbo list of Bill Clinton’s campaign promises. We’re keeping track of what the Clinton gang’s up to. Protect yourself, your family, and your friends against liberal disinformation. Call 800 --
Steve Kornacki: Gingrich himself is doing what he can to stoke the backlash, but no longer does he have to do all the work or even most of it. By now, the House Republican ranks are filled with Republicans schooled in the Newt style.
By June, "TIME" magazine publishes a devastating cover that calls Clinton, “The Incredible Shrinking President,” and his approval rating falls under 40 percent.
That giant wish-list Democrats were so eager to move on back in January, it’s sitting idle. Now they're just trying to get a budget passed, and even that is suddenly in peril and so, it increasingly seems, is the Clinton presidency itself.
Let’s go back to the 1992 campaign. Bill Clinton is promising to be what he calls, quote, “a different kind of Democrat.”
Clinton campaign ad: They're a new generation of Democrats, Bill Clinton and Al Gore, and they don't think the way the old Democratic Party did.
Steve Kornacki: That’s an image that would ultimately prove easier to project than to live up to. In order to understand the battle that erupts over Clinton’s budget in the first year of his presidency, the context is important.
We’ve spent much of this podcast talking about the decade’s long stranglehold on Congress that Democrats have enjoyed but, as I explained earlier, when it comes to the presidency, they’ve experienced almost nothing but futility.
Coming into 1992, Democrats have lost five of the last six presidential elections. Most of them haven't even been close. Twice in that time, in 1972 and in 1984, they’ve carried just a single state.
Why are Democrats losing presidential races so badly and so often? To Bill Clinton, it’s because they’ve lost touch with the middle class, the voters who decide elections. In a way, Clinton is seeing the shifting political landscape the same way Newt Gingrich sees it. Democrats have made it too easy for Republicans to tag them as tax-happy, soft on crime, and friendly to big government. In short, too liberal.
Clinton is the leader of a group of Democrats who want to redefine the party. They call themselves the Democratic Leadership Council, the DLC. Many of them, but not all, are from the South.
Bill Clinton: Our DLC has over 600 federal, state and local elected officials. People who are brimming with ideas and energy, people who are out there on the firing line everyday actually solving problems and somehow getting the electoral support they need to go forward.
Steve Kornacki: Dick Gephardt was also a part of the DLC at this time, and I spoke with him about how they were trying to change the party.
Dick Gephardt: The Democratic Party was a very different party in those days than it is today. When I came to the House in 1976, the Democrats had literally almost every seat in the southern states, but by 1988 and 1990, 1992, we were really losing a lot of those seats. We felt that the only way we can win nationally is to hold onto enough of the votes from the more conservative states.
Steve Kornacki: He says that Clinton was trying to halt and reverse the defection of the middle class from the Democratic Party.
Dick Gephardt: We had a little book that we put out called “The Yellow Brick Road,” which is the road to opportunity, which is the issue that we thought really needed to be stressed in campaigns.
Steve Kornacki: You mentioned that word opportunity. That’s the word that comes up when we talk to Newt’s folks. Vin Webber and Bob Walker, and they said that’s the word they wanted to own, too. Was there a sort of a competition there to kind of own that concept?
Dick Gephardt: Yes, I’m sure of it. I mean, the problem you have with just being for social progress is people really dislike welfare or giveaways to people that they didn’t earn. People have real umbrage at using their tax-paid dollars to give to people that don't work, that don't put out effort.
Steve Kornacki: These are the themes that Bill Clinton emphasizes when he runs for president. He calls himself a protector of, quote, “the forgotten middle class,” the people who he says, quote, “work hard and play by the rules.” When he calls himself a different kind of Democrat, it’s his way of telling voters he’s not like the Democrats they’ve been rejecting.
And he goes further. He’s for the death penalty. He says he’ll reform welfare. And the key, when he announces his campaign for president, he promises that he will cut taxes for the middle class.
Bill Clinton: For 12 years while middle-class incomes went down, the Republicans raised taxes on middle class people. And while the incomes of our wealthiest citizens went up, their taxes were lowered. That’s wrong, and the middle class needs a break.
Steve Kornacki: During the primaries, there’s some resistance from the left, but Clinton wins the Democratic nomination and then sets out to unseat Bush. His platform really is different from what previous Democratic nominees have run on. And by the fall he’s well ahead in the polls. The economy has weakened Bush and Clinton is connecting with exactly the kind of middle-class voters he’s been targeting.
At the same time, the budget deficit is getting worse. That 1990 tax deal we talked about in the last episode, the one that was supposed to stop all that red ink, it hasn’t done that, at least not yet.
It forces candidate Clinton to confront a big question, one that could make or break his candidacy. It’s asked about two weeks before the election by Jim Lehrer, the moderator of the final presidential debate.
Jim Lehrer: You are promising to create jobs, reduce the deficit, reform the healthcare system, rebuild the infrastructure, guarantee college education for everyone who is qualified among many other things, all with financial pain only for the very rich. Some people are having trouble apparently believing that is possible. Should they have that concern?
Bill Clinton: No. There are many people who believe that the only way we can get this country around is to tax the middle class more and punish them more. But the truth is that middle-class Americans are basically the only group of Americans who have been taxed more in the 1980s and during the last 12 years even though their incomes have gone down. The wealthiest Americans have been taxed much less even though their incomes have gone up.
Steve Kornacki: To President George Bush, this is the chance to convince Americans that Clinton isn’t actually a different kind of Democrat.
George H.W. Bush: Mister and Mrs. America, when you hear him say we’re going to tax only the rich, watch your wallet because his figures don't add up and he’s going to sack it right to the middle-class taxpayer and lower if he’s going to pay for all the spending programs he promises.
Steve Kornacki: But Clinton is emphatic.
Bill Clinton: Now, I can tell you this. I will not raise taxes on the middle class to pay for these programs. If the money does not come in there to pay for these programs, we will cut other government spending or we will slow down the phase in the programs. I am not going to raise taxes on the middle class to pay for these programs.
Steve Kornacki: Bush tries to tell voters they shouldn’t trust Clinton. Clinton fires back that Bush is in no position to talk about trust. After all, he’s the guy who said, “Read my lips. No new taxes,” and then raised them anyway.
And that’s enough for voters. On Election Day it’s not even close. Clinton wins with 370 electoral votes. Bush receives the lowest share of the vote any incumbent president has received in 80 years.
Bill Clinton: On this day with high hopes and brave hearts and massive numbers, the American people have voted to make a new beginning.
Steve Kornacki: OK. So now we’re back in February of 1993 and Clinton’s been sworn in. He’s already off to a bad start. The Zoe Baird saga, as we said, is just the first of a seemingly endless series of early uproars. Amidst all of this Clinton has to put a budget together, and he’s got a problem. It turns out that his critics were right. That idea of a tax cut for the middle class, he’s junking it. And actually he’s decided middle class Americans are going to need to pay more in taxes.
On February 15, Clinton speaks to the nation from the Oval Office. He sits behind the Resolute Desk, hands crossed in front of him. At multiple points charts appear on screen to illustrate the economic challenges. He singles out the middle class and he speaks to them directly.
Bill Clinton: I had hoped to invest in your future by creating jobs, expanding education, reforming healthcare and reducing the debt without asking more of you. And I've worked harder than I've ever worked in my life to meet that goal. But, I can't, because the deficit has increased so much, beyond my earlier estimates and beyond ever the worst official government estimates from last year.
We just have to face the fact that to make the changes that our country needs more Americans must contribute today so that all Americans can do better tomorrow.
Steve Kornacki: Politically, this is an especially perilous reversal for Clinton. Simply raising taxes is unpopular enough. Add to that the fact that his prime vulnerability as a candidate was his character. Questions about his honesty, trustworthiness. His enemies have been calling him Slick Willie, the political equivalent of a used car salesman. And now, they have more ammunition than ever to say they were right.
Rush Limbaugh: Here's the truth about it, he never intended to give you a middle-class tax cut. He just said it because he thought that it would help win the election. Now, you may say, politics as usual. It is, but you want to change.
Steve Kornacki: So, here's a president facing big deficits and calling for tax hikes to balance the books. And, really, it's pretty similar to what George H.W. Bush had done with the tax hike deal in 1990. But remember, that deal in 1990 had torn the Republican Party in half. Newt Gingrich had led a revolt while the Old Guard Republican leadership had stood with Bush. Now, though, on the Republican side, there is nothing but unity.
Vin Weber: I think by the time Clinton came into office, most all Republicans believed that tax cutting was central to the Republican agenda. They believe that we could take the majority in the House if we stuck with it. They did not believe that the deficit was a looming threat.
Steve Kornacki: This is Vin Weber again. He actually retired from Congress in 1992, but he remained involved in Republican efforts to win the House majority. By 1993 the Republican Party has moved a long way toward embracing the gospel of tax cutting that Jack Kemp had started preaching back in the 1970s. But Bush's defeat in 1992 had intensified their view on this subject. Among Republicans it is now taken as a given that Bush's tax deal hadn't just been bad policy, it had been bad politics. That it cost him the presidency.
Vin Weber: I think at that point, most people saw that for the Republican Party to support a tax increase was a self-destructive act.
Steve Kornacki: And even before Clinton has addressed the nation Newt Gingrich has a script ready to. Here he is in a C-SPAN interview talking about Clinton.
Newt Gingrich: If you look carefully at what he's describing, he is clearly setting the stage or a bigger government, for more pork barrels for the politicians to have more control. And instead of having a middle-class tax cut, he's setting the stage clearly for a middle-class tax increase.
Steve Kornacki: A couple nights after his Oval Office address, Clinton formally unveils his plan to a Joint Session of Congress.
Bill Clinton: 98.8 percent of America's families will have no increase in their income tax rates.
Steve Kornacki: He tries to emphasize that the rich will foot most of the bill.
Bill Clinton: For the wealthiest, those earning more than $180,000 per year, I ask you all who are listening tonight to support a raise in the top rate for federal income taxes from 31 to 36 percent. We --
Steve Kornacki: But he does propose a new tax the middle class will feel. Something he calls a, quote, broad-based energy tax.
Bill Clinton: It does not discriminate against any area. Unlike a carbon tax, it's not too hard on the coal states. Unlike a gas tax, it's not too tough on people who drive a long way to work.
Steve Kornacki: Clinton's address sets off months of wrangling in Congress. And really, with Republicans all lining up in opposition, it's wrangling among Democrats. They have big majorities in the House and the Senate, but that doesn't mean they're all eager to vote for a tax increase.
Representatives from coal country shoot down the energy tax, which sends Democrats casting about to find more revenue. They land on raising the gas tax. Here's Dick Gephardt again.
Dick Gephardt: People get what they paid for in highways and bridges, so you ought to be able to explain this to your people at home if you go back and patiently explain it.
Steve Kornacki: But he told me, his caucus didn't think so.
Dick Gephardt: Many of them said I can't vote for anything. Some of them said a few cents. I said, could you vote for 10 cents? And they -- everybody said no, we can't do that. We'll have ads run against us in the next election saying, you raised the gasoline tax, it will kill me. And I said, I got -- I know, but we got to do something.
Steve Kornacki: In August, the bill goes in front of the House with a 4.3 cent gas tax increase. The vote is going to be close. The plan is unpopular. Congressional offices have been flooded with phone calls opposing it. Every single Republican is a no vote and dozens of Democrats are too, or at least they want to be.
Clinton is facing the possibility of just what Bush faced in 1990, a humiliating and politically devastating defeat on his budget. Gephardt has asked the freshman Democrats in the House to hold off on voting. He knows they could be particularly vulnerable on this when the 1994 midterms come around. There's about 20 or 30 other Democrats Gephardt just can't get a firm read on. He's hoping they'll come around and spare some of the freshmen from having to vote yes.
Dick Gephardt: And they all told me if I have to vote for this I'm going to lose. I said, I know, I don't want you to have to vote for it, but just hang on. So, the votes go up, it's like a basketball game, you know. You're looking at the scoreboard at each end of the building.
Steve Kornacki: The House vote is set for 15 minutes, and as the clock ticks down to zero it's still incredibly close. Democrats need a simple majority here, 218 votes to pass this bill and now they're at 217, just one short.
Dick Gephardt: There was only one freshman who didn't vote, that was Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky. And so, I went over to her and I said, Marjorie, this is it, you have to vote yes. This is not about you, it's not about me, it's not about the party, it's not about Clinton, it's about the country. You have to do this. Please do this.
Steve Kornacki: Mezvinsky represents a suburban district outside Philadelphia and for months she's been sending signals that she'll vote no. She knows and all of her colleagues know how vulnerable a yes vote would make her in the midterm.
Dick Gephardt: There are probably 400 people on the floor.
Steve Kornacki: Newt Gingrich is there, of course. He's standing with his ally, Pennsylvania's Bob Walker.
Dick Gephardt: She marched down the aisle --
Steve Kornacki: Everyone is on their feet, watching intensely.
Dick Gephardt: And as she plopped down the green card --
Steve Kornacki: To vote yes.
Dick Gephardt: The Republicans stood in the aisles and waved and sang bye-bye Marjorie.
Steve Kornacki: Bob Walker is the first one to wave and then others join in. For a party that just lost an important vote, the Republicans sure look very happy, especially Newt Gingrich. This is precisely the contrast he's always wanted. Republicans are sounding a clear and unified message, one after another. They are calling this the largest tax increase in American history, though that is disputed by some.
And now Clinton and the Democrats will have to own it. Gingrich holds a press conference shortly after the vote and enlists Congressman Bill Paxon, then chairing the committee to get Republicans elected to the House, to spell out how they'll use their loss.
Bill Paxon: And Newt Gingrich said it best and it's a message we're going to repeat over and over and over again. Each and every Democrat who cast a vote for this plan tonight was the deciding vote. We're going to put a billboard up in every one of their districts and we're going to remind the voters of their districts that these are folks that committed the worst atrocity of all.
Newt Gingrich: I believe this will lead to a recession next year. This is the Democrat machine's recession and each one of them will be held personally accountable.
Steve Kornacki: In fact, that's exactly what happens.
John Fox Ad: Unfortunate, that describes Marjorie Mezvinsky's deciding vote that gave us the biggest tax increase in history.
Steve Kornacki: This is an ad Mezvinsky's Republican challenger would eventually run in 1994.
John Fox Ad: One more word about a Congresswoman who breaks her promises, unforgivable.
Steve Kornacki: In the end, Bill Clinton gets his budget through. It passes the Senate by the slimmest of margins. Vice President Al Gore has to break a 50/50 tie and then Clinton signs it. But, the process has been long and politically draining.
Meanwhile, Republicans have played it exactly the way Gingrich wanted them to, the way he's always wanted them to. And they can feel the momentum building for 1994.
More than ever it feels like the Republican Party is becoming Newt's party. And so, maybe it's not surprising that right around the same time the man who's led Republicans in the House for years decides his time is up.
After the break, Bob Michel, nicknamed Mr. Nice Guy, makes it official.
It's Monday, October 4, 1993, two months after the House vote on Clinton's budget. In Peoria, Illinois, Bob Michel is on TV and he's crying.
Bob Michel: And our family, without whom I could never have achieved whatever measure of success I have enjoyed over these many years in public life (ph).
Steve Kornacki: The local news station, WHOI, runs a banner across the banner of the screen. It says, quote, “Calling It Quits”.
Bob Michel: And I think it’s a good time to hang it up.
WHOI Reporter: With that, Congressman Bob Michel announced he would not seek a 20th term in the U.S. House. In his remarks, he criticized both Republicans and Democrats for what he calls trashing Congress by not being willing to compromise on key issues.
Steve Kornacki: Michel flies to Washington, and later that same day he holds a press conference. And the very first question he gets is about who’s, quote, “trashing Congress.”
Reporter 1: Would you say that somebody who says we’ve had corrupt one-party rule for four decades is trashing the Congress?
Bob Michel: Well that’s pretty much of a --
Steve Kornacki: He’s blinking, and then closes his eyes completely when he says.
Bob Michel: Well that’s an opinion of some, and there’s been no question that, you know, it’s been one-party rule around here all during my tenure, and that’s very --
Steve Kornacki: The Republican Minority Leader is 70-years old. He served more than half of his life in the House. On this day, he looked sharp, pinstriped suit, striped tie, not a hair out of place. Classy.
Bob Michel: When I came down here some 37 years ago, my charge was out of the Junior Chamber of Congress. Bob, go down to Washington. Cut the cost of government. Be an exponent of private and free enterprise, and you know, that was about my charge. It wasn’t anything about revolutionizing this and changing this or that, but it’s changed.
Steve Kornacki: Just anybody who’s listening knows the subtext. Newt Gingrich and the pressure Bob Michel’s been feeling from Newt and his allies for more than a decade.
Bob Michel: I've had my detractors over my period as leader for whatever reason, but that’s who I am. That’s what I was, and others will maybe project a different image.
Steve Kornacki: And then Michel strikes a wistful note.
Bob Michel: I wish I could have been more effective at times, but lacking the numbers, you know, you can only expect so much success.
Reporter 2: Can we back up, Congressman?
Bob Michel: Sure.
Reporter 2: And tell us, for those of us who weren’t in Peoria, why are you leaving?
Bob Michel: Why am I leaving? Well I said, first of all, that had George Bush won the presidency in his bid for reelection, I would --
Steve Kornacki: The reporters in the room start asking explicitly about Newt Gingrich. Newt has made no secret of his plan to run for party leader.
Reporter 3: Obviously Gingrich now is a frontrunner to replace you. What kind of leader do you think he would be?
Bob Michel: Well, Newt will have to prove that, but we’ve had a very cordial relationship in the last years that we've been the number one and two spots, and I have --
Steve Kornacki: And Michel says he thinks Newt has learned some things by observing him.
Bob Michel: Newt is a very able, capable individual, and articulate and very well read, and people ought not to sell Newt short.
Reporter 4: Sir, would you characterize those comments as you're being enthusiastic about Newt Gingrich?
Bob Michel: Well I don't want to get myself in the business here as I am leaving, of picking and choosing.
Steve Kornacki: Despite what Bob Michel says, there’s little question about who will be taking his job as House Minority Leader. And make no mistake, that is what most people think the job will still be called after the 1994 midterm, Minority Leader. Republicans have weakened Bill Clinton during his first year in office, but the idea of the House flipping in ’94 is as unfathomable as ever. At one point, Michel starts doing the math out loud.
Bob Michel: Quite frankly, we’re at 176 members, and the normal pickup in a first year following a presidential election for the opposition party is between 15 and 19 seats.
Steve Kornacki: It gets a bit dizzying as he walks through how the numbers have changed over the years.
Bob Michel: In the Carter administration with only 143, pick up 15 and then 38 and got up --
Steve Kornacki: He arrives at this answer.
Bob Michel: I’m sure we’ll be somewhat short of what - would call for my being Speaker of the House. And so, if that’s the ultimate prize and it’s unobtainable in the next two years, why not take the gracious way out.
Steve Kornacki: The gracious way out. Now in this podcast you’ve heard some people suggest that Bob Michel was content to remain in a Minority or at least that he was resigned to it. Now as he’s retiring, it might seem like that’s what he’s saying. But his longtime aide, Ray LaHood, who, remember, knew him very well, takes issue with that.
Ray LaHood: If Bob Michel were sitting here today, if you were talking to him, one of the things he would tell you was his goal as Minority Leader was always trying to get Republicans elected because he wanted to be Speaker. The idea that he wanted to be in the Minority his entire career is complete bologna. People who say that don't know Bob Michel.
Steve Kornacki: The bottom line, though, is that on this day in October 1993, Bob Michel doesn’t see the possibility of a Republican House Majority emerging anytime soon, and he’s hardly alone in that. What he does see is what he calls, quote, “a big generational gap”.
Bob Michel: My style of leadership and my sense of values and my whole thinking process is giving way to a new generation, and I accept that. And that’s probably the way it ought it be, but I’m really much more comfortable operating in the methodology by which we did when I first came to the Congress.
Reporter 5: Is that going to be a more confrontational generation? Is that what you're saying?
Bob Michel: Well, could very well be. If they think that’s what makes points or that’s what’s good for the country in their eyes.
Reporter 6: Well how do you analyze it then?
Steve Kornacki: Bob Michel’s announcement is the beginning of the end of an era. He’ll remain Minority Leader for another year until his term concludes, and there’s no suspense about who will then secede him. Michel speaks on a Monday. This is Thursday, three days later.
Crowd: Newt! Newt! Newt!
Steve Kornacki: The sun is out, just a few clouds in the distance, when Newt Gingrich descends the Capitol steps into a crowd of Republican members of Congress.
Newt Gingrich: Let me, first of all, thank all of my colleagues for coming out here and for agreeing to be with me today. I’m going to have a brief statement, and then I’m --
Steve Kornacki: Newt stands behind a podium draped with microphones. Dozens of colleagues flank him, squinting into the sun.
Newt Gingrich: We Republicans believe in freedom, free speech, free elections, free markets, and the rights and responsibilities of free men and women.
Steve Kornacki: He uses language that he has, by this date, used many, many times before.
Newt Gingrich: We House Republicans face an extraordinary challenge in seeking to replace the welfare state and to help the American people create and opportunity society.
Steve Kornacki: Gingrich doesn’t even need to say why he’s making this speech. Everyone knows, and he has no real competition to lead the House Republicans.
Newt Gingrich: With the already-committed support of over 100 members of the House Republican Conference, I believe we can build a team that can fulfill our rendezvous with destiny. With their help, with their commitment, with their talents, I am convinced we can renew American civilization.
Steve Kornacki: When he’s done, John Boehner, then just a second-term congressman from Ohio, takes the podium.
John Boehner: We not only see Newt Gingrich as the next Republican leader in the House, we see him as the first Republican speaker in 40 years here in the House of Representatives.
Steve Kornacki: And soon the Republican Party will make everybody see it. That’s next time on "The Revolution."
We made multiple requests to speak with Newt Gingrich for this podcast, but he was never made available.
From MSNBC, this is the fourth of six episodes of "The Revolution." If you like what you’ve heard, please give us a five-star rating and a review on Apple Podcasts. And be sure to tell your friends and follow on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you're listening right now.
"The Revolution" was written and hosted by me, Steve Kornacki. The series is produced by Frannie Kelley, Ursula Sommer, Adam Noboa. It’s edited by Alison MacAdam. Our Associate Producer is Eva Ruth Moravec. Special thanks to Lacy Roberts. Sound design by Ramtin Arablouei. Bryson Barnes is our technical director, and he wrote our music. Soraya Gage is our Executive Producer, and Madeleine Haeringer is our Head of Editorial.