Politics & Policy

Bob Michel, Conservative Stalwart

Bob Michel (left) with former President Carter and President Bush in 2001. (Reuters photo: Larry Downing)
The former Republican House leader made little noise but made things work.

Former House Republican leader Bob Michel, who died Friday two weeks shy of his 94th birthday, should be remembered as a brave veteran of the Battle of the Bulge, a patriotic public servant, a thoroughly decent man — and, yes, contrary to some public impressions today, a conservative hero.

For young conservatives ignorant of Michel’s actual record, especially those who like to cite him as an example of weak, accommodationist non-leadership, it is that last assertion that may sound controversial. It shouldn’t be.

Civility isn’t weakness. Personal decency isn’t a character flaw. Respect for the institution of Congress is not a sign of unsound political philosophy. And long public service is no proof of being polluted by the “swamp.”

Michel spent eight years as a congressional aide and 38 as a congressman, six of them as minority whip and 14 as minority leader. By any fair accounting, those last 20 years were ones of great achievements for conservatism and country — achievements for which Michel deserves a significant share of credit.

Michel became whip at the absolute ebb tide of Republican politics, in the wake of the horrendous 1974 near-wipeout of the GOP after Watergate. Still at 142 seats in 1978, the House leadership team, Michel included, embraced the then-radical Kemp-Roth tax cuts as a central mission. With Michel whipping votes from the minority side and Democrats looking for cover, the proposal looked poised for House passage — this, two years before the “Reagan Revolution” — until President Jimmy Carter issued a strong veto threat. The bill failed, but the predicate was laid: Republicans gained 15 House seats, starting its long climb back to House supremacy.

Michel took over as the GOP House leader at the same time Reagan took the presidency. Even after increasing their seats to 192 after the 1980 elections, Republicans were still 26 members short of a majority. It took more than just Reagan’s charm and persistence to enact the Gipper’s program: The hard work of crafting bipartisan majorities from a minority-party numbers fell to Michel.

For anyone around at the time, there was absolutely no doubt Michel was a conservative and an enthusiastic and essential part of Reagan’s team. People forget now just how stunning a set of legislative achievements ensued. It wasn’t just the Reagan-Kemp-Roth tax cuts in the midst of incontinent spending; Reagan and Michel and company also rolled back domestic discretionary spending again and again. Non-defense discretionary spending was cut from $167 billion in 1980 to $138 billion in 1982 — a nearly mind-boggling 17 percent reduction in actual, pre-inflation dollars. (In a time of rampant inflation, if one accounts for the inflationary value of those dollars, the cuts were even greater.)

It took more than just Reagan’s charm and persistence to enact the Gipper’s program: The hard work of crafting bipartisan majorities from a minority-party numbers fell to Michel.

Michel was not just a rider on the train; he was an engineer (as recounted in The Deficit and the Public Interest, by Joseph White and Aaron Wildavsky). When moderate Republicans balked at the early budget resolution, he exploded at them and held them in line. When the first rounds of cuts passed, Michel boasted: “Let history show that we provided the margin of difference that changed the course of American government.” As each round of cuts went through the process, Michel repeatedly intervened to find ways to keep recalcitrant members in line with White House goals — “to develop a package,” as White and Wildavsky put it, “from which no Republican would defect.”

Throughout the Reagan years — the tax cuts, the non-defense budget savings, the military buildup, the rollback of Communism — Michel was no mere risk-averse, go-along-to-get-along, don’t-anger-the-Democrats minority leader. He was an aggressive and skillful fighter for conservative policies. (A lifetime American Conservative Union rating of 85 over 38 years, by the way, is hardly the score of a “squish.”) It wasn’t a matter of capitulating to Democrats but of winning them to our side on individual issues or on legislative procedure. As Speaker Newt Gingrich graciously said to Politico’s David Rogers, “Michel could co-opt [Speaker Tip] O’Neill and [committee chairman Dan] Rostenkowski to get a lot done for Reagan. I could never have done that.”

Note that Michel co-opted them, not vice versa.

That Gingrich later brought a different, much-needed skill set and brilliantly effectuated a Republican takeover of the House for the first time in 40 years should not negate the value, the difficulty, or the success of Michel’s role.

As exhaustively reported in just about every news obituary of Michel this weekend, that skill set included an innate and palpable personal decency and sense of goodwill, a resolute and principled patriotism, and an acute understanding of what it really means — in a phrase popular but perhaps misused these days — to “make good deals.”

Rick Santorum, whose four years in the House of Representatives overlapped with Michel’s final two terms, told me, “He was a dear man with a big heart, but was from an era where the differences between the parties were more muted.”

If those virtues made Michel ill-equipped to finally bring House Republicans into the Promised Land, well . . . Moses spent two years longer in the wilderness than Michel did in the minority, and Moses didn’t get there either.

Yet let’s not forget that Michel did not retard Gingrich’s efforts — he encouraged them. Sure, maybe Michel was unnerved by ethics offensive waged by the young “Gang of Seven” against House Democrats during 1990–94, but he supported aggressive efforts to lay down legislative markers in those years. And, contrary to ex post facto accounts in which Michel is portrayed as having been opposed to the Contract with America, led by Gingrich and Dick Armey, Michel actually applauded it. Indeed, part of the idea for its unveiling on the Capitol steps came from Michel, recalling a similar congressional House rally for candidate Reagan in the fall of 1980.

Michel was, by the way, the opening speaker at the Contract’s unveiling (video here; wind it back to its opening) on September 27, 1994, vowing that the document would indeed lead to a GOP House majority — and to an institution he said would therefore be “transformed, reformed, and renewed.”

In a Sunday morning e-mail to me, Gingrich said:

Bob Michel balanced two very different jobs. As minority leader (the longest in American history) he had to work with Democrats in a bipartisan way to help Presidents Reagan and Bush pass their agendas. As Republican leader he had to encourage the more aggressive and more partisan younger Republicans who were the hope of someday becoming a majority. He showed enormous discipline and balance in living out both roles effectively and with minimum conflict.

For anyone who saw Michel at even reasonably close range, it was impossible not to like him, and equally impossible not to admire him. This was a man who spent his whole adult life serving his principles, his party, and his country, usually with singular effectiveness. He might not have made the most noise, but he made things work. There was a time when conservatives appreciated such an attribute. For at least this week, let’s do so again, as we celebrate the sure knowledge that Robert H. Michel now rests in the ultimate and truest Promised Land of all.

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