Trouble in Political Paradise

Stephen C. Meyer and David K. DeWolf

Reprinted from The Chicago Tribune, October 18, 1994

When House Speaker Tom Foley and his GOP challenger George Nethercutt debate next week at the Gonzaga University Law School more than just Spokane will be watching-and with good reason. CPAN's decision to carry the debate nationwide reflects a growing sense that something almost cataclysmic is happening across the American political landscape from Ted Kennedy's Massachusetts to Tom Foley's Eastern Washington.

By now most people have heard predictions of a big Republican year. Beltway pundits have been figuring on Republican gains in Congress for several months. Yet as dramatic as these predictions have seemed, most understate both the scope and significance of the potential eruption brewing "out there in the country" (as they often call us).

"Out here" in Spokane Foley's precarious position reflects far more than just an off-year swing back to the political center, or a reaction against the overreach of a minority President. Instead, Foley's troubles reflect a fundamental change in the calculus of voting-one that appears to be taking place not only in Eastern Washington, but across the country.

Since Foley's vulnerability first became apparent he has attempted to shore up his support in the usual way. Reports suggest that Foley may have spent nearly three-quarters of a million dollars before Washington's primary election, but to little avail. His 35% showing was his worst in 30 years.

Since the primary Foley has relied upon other familiar tactics. He has run ads reminding voters of what his influence inside Congress means to them. One tells how he used his muscle to save Spokane's Fairchild Air Force Base from closure as the names of defunct bases scroll past on the screen. Other ads have represented him as tough on crime. Still another attacked his opponent-actually a new tactic for Foley-for allegedly favoring spending cuts in child immunizations and student loans.

Yet neither negative advertisements, nor election year conservatism, nor even the "pork and influence" argument seem to be working for Foley this time. Instead, Foley's current 10-point deficit in the polls suggests that Eastern Washington voters, like many others, are now reckoning their support by different criteria. If eastern Washington is any indication, voters seem to be doing a different kind of cost-benefit analysis when evaluating their representatives.

First, voters here seem increasingly wise to the personal cost of the present system. In a district that sends more tax money to Washington DC than it receives back, the pork argument is now difficult to justify even on pragmatic grounds. Foley's support for the unpopular Bush and Clinton tax increases hasn't helped him make the case either. Neither has the crime bill. While Foley announced last week that his district would receive 33 new officers from the bill, the pro rate tax cost to the district has been estimated at $200,000, per officer.

The assumption that Foley is a "net plus" for the local economy has been questioned for other reasons. Foley worked hard for Clinton-style health care reform. Yet the biggest employer in Spokane (the largest city in Foley's district) is not the Air Force base he takes credit for saving, but a sophisticated health-care industry that serves small population centers between Seattle and Salt Lake City.

Spokane's hospitals and treatment centers also service many Canadians disenchanted with Canadian-style care. All Democratic plans currently under discussion would stem the flow of Canadian dollars to the Spokane economy. Foley's ability to dispense federal projects now matters less to local employment than does his advocacy of an unpopular federal take-over of Spokane's primary industry. For the first time, Foley has lost the support of much of Spokane's heavily medical South Hill community.

He's also in trouble with farmers, foresters and miners over the cost of regulation. Wheat farmers in particular have expressed anger about his unwillingness to help with overzealous federal regulators. Many now question whether Foley's national influence can compensate for the cost of federal involvement in their industry.

Second, voters now seem more concerned with character than clout. For years constituents have forgiven almost any personal peccadillo provided their congressman delivered the goods. Clout mattered more than being clean. Now even the relatively squeaky speaker finds his insider image hurting him. For every voter impressed by his influence in Congress, there is another disgusted with the scandal of the institution he leads.

Foley's problem is not so much the graft at the House bank or post office, neither of which were much reported in his sympathetic hometown paper The Spokesman Review. Instead, voters here detect in Foley a more serious character flaw: arrogance. His decision to use the courts to challenge Washington State's terms limits referendum has particularly sparked local ire. So has his recent purchase of a $1.2 million house in Washington DC. The resentment created by such actions has made fashionable an almost unseemly activism. Weekly "'De-Foley-ate' Congress" rallies in local shopping now attract large crowds and elicit enthusiastic honking and whopping from passing motorists.

Third, to many voters here, ideology now matters as much as money. From health care and crime to term limits and taxes, Foley has consistently cast himself to the left of a district that voted overwhelmingly for Reagan and Bush in the 1980s and turned out heavily for Perot in 1992. While many voters in the past have overlooked ideological differences with Foley in exchange for "constituency services," this November seems different.

Foley has had to carry water for an unpopular Clinton agenda. His close identification with Clinton is making his left-leaning sympathies more difficult to obscure with right-leaning voters, especially independents. A recent spot advertising the Speaker's support for a "tough" crime bill strained credulity in a district well-steeped in talk radio.

Foley's identification with Clinton hurts him in another way. Over the years Foley has subtly cultivated the perception that his prominence in Washington D.C., gives eastern Washington a disproportionate influence on national policy. That message is backfiring this year. Local voters-angry over taxes, regulation, gun control and health care reform-have become energized by the prospect of denying Clinton his prime legislative asset. Nethercutt has repeatedly made this connection explicit. "Beat Foley, beat Clinton," he says.

Finally, in eastern Washington, like many places in America's heartland, there is a growing constituency for hard truths, especially about federal spending. George Nethercutt has energized many Perot voters by turning Foley's strongest argument against him. Nethercutt has repeatedly stressed the unusual opportunity that 5th District voters have to affect fiscal responsibility in Washington D.C., by rejecting the man at the top of the present system. His first fund raising breakfast attracted over 1,000 people to eat a symbolically austere breakfast of Wheaties and skim milk.

Clearly, some factors threatening Foley's re-election are local. Others reflect larger national trends. Yet even the local factors demonstrate a trend that must disturb members of the entrenched congressional establishment. Like voters here in Spokane, voters across the country now seem to be more astute political consumers.

From health-care reform to crime legislation, more seem willing to evaluate the cost of the product and to look behind the label. The debate next week between Nethercutt and Foley will give all of us a chance to do just that.