It somehow seems appropriate that just as Washington descends to new depths of partisan polarization after Donald Trump’s strange press conference yesterday, we learn that former House GOP Leader Bob Michel has died, at the age of 93, in a suburb of the capital. Let’s hope Michel was too sick to watch a spectacle that might have confirmed the downward trend in civility — especially in his own party — so many identified as occurring when he was pushed aside just prior to the Republican Revolution of 1994.
Michel spent 38 years in Congress representing a central Illinois district. His House career covered all but two years of the four-decade wilderness period when Republicans remained in the minority. While a consistent conservative, Michel learned how to exert influence without real power, in part by respecting ancient traditions of comity and compromise. But by the end of his career, the ideological conquest of the GOP by movement conservatives who viewed comity and compromise as craven terms of surrender had advanced just far enough to make Michel’s continuation as party leader impossible. And so he retired on the cusp of a House Republican majority — like Moses, given a glimpse of the promised land he could not enter.
It was obvious at the time that Michel’s retirement represented a turning point for his party. Former colleague Mickey Edwards summarized it well even before Michel announced he was giving up his leadership post and his House seat:
Congress is not a very pleasant place these days, and one could easily understand why a man of Michel’s abilities, always in the minority, always on the periphery, never chairman of anything, might decide that he’d finally had enough of the Democrats’ tyranny. Ironically, however, if he hangs it up, it will not be the Democrats who drove him to it; it will be his fellow Republicans, the young and angry ones, the ones who see being in Congress as part of a ceaseless political campaign and have little stomach for the serious legislative work they were elected to do.
Michel is often referred to these days as a moderate (or, worse, a compromising) Republican. He is accused of seeking consensus when his troops are seeking blood. Which shows that all things are relative, for Michel, often stubborn, often combative, has been consistently ranked among the most conservative members of Congress. Yet, measured against the majority of today’s House Republicans, who judge not by philosophy but by belligerence, Michel, a wartime combat veteran who still slugs it out for a strong defense, less government, reduced spending, is “not one of us.”
No, he wasn’t, but Newt Gingrich was, and even though Gingrich himself was purged from the House leadership and Congress just a few years after engineering Michel’s political eclipse, the GOP remains in many respects Newt’s party, thanks to his relationship with the elephant’s new master, Donald Trump. Had Michel been younger and stayed around after 1994, he would have eventually gone along with the new extremist style or been purged as a RINO. By all accounts, he was temperamentally incapable of the kind of opposition-demonizing tactics that have long become normal in both parties, but especially in Michel’s party.
There will be many pleasant words of praise for Michel today. House Speaker Paul Ryan paused from his intense efforts to engineer a right-wing agenda through Congress without a single Democratic vote to call the former leader a “great and gracious man.” While there is no reason to attribute insincerity to Ryan in this instance, he could have no more thrived in the atmosphere of Michel’s House GOP than Michel could have thrived in Ryan’s. And now it’s Ryan who must watch his own back in case the latest breed of angry Republicans decide he is too old-school to lead them.