Washington: The "New Conservatives"

Quiet but effective, a powerful right-wing coalition has formed in the Senate.

Jake (E. J.) Garn is not exactly a household word. Few Americans are familiar with his mean stare or his quick wit. Although he is now the senior senator from Utah, that fact hardly makes him a frequent subject of attention in the national press. He can wander about Washington—or, for that matter, the corridors of the Senate office buildings—without risk of being asked for his autograph, or even of being recognized. Not many people know, or care, that he has a 96 percent rating as a “staunch conservative” from the Committee for the Survival of a Free Congress (CSFC), an organization that classifies neo-conservative Democrats such as Henry Jackson and Daniel Patrick Moynihan as “radicals.”

But those who follow the affairs of the United States Senate are learning to notice, and listen to, Jake Garn. As he begins his fifth year in the Senate, he wields a surprising amount of raw power. He is the ranking Republican member of the Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs, which has a major role in the regulation of financial institutions and the supervision of federal housing programs. He is chairman of the Senate Republican Committee on Committees, which parcels out the committee assignments of the forty-one members of the minority. His goal for 1979, as he simply states it, is “defeat of the SALT agreement” with the Soviet Union. Because he is an influential member of the Armed Services Committee, he may well be in a position to achieve that goal.

Perhaps the most significant fact about Garn is that he is a new actor on the national political stage. In the 1960s, when much of the country was in turmoil over civil rights, Vietnam, and drugs and many of his present Senate colleagues were already deeply involved in politics, Garn was living a quiet life in Salt Lake City as an insurance agent, a member of the Junior Chamber of Commerce, and a leader of the local fund drive for the American Cancer Society. His first real exposure to governmental bureaucracy came when he had trouble negotiating with the Salt Lake City commission for a new lease for the Utah Air National Guard. In 1967 he ran against his nemesis on the commission and won; four years later he was elected mayor of Salt Lake City. Three years in that job made him feel like “the local manager for the federal bureaucracy.” In 1974, just after Richard Nixon had fallen and when the Republican party was at its weakest point in decades, Garn, at the age of forty-two, won a Senate seat and promised to “do everything I could to decentralize things, to restore the balance in the federal system.”

Alone, Jake Garn, despite his energy, sense of humor, and articulateness, would not be able to have much impact in Washington. But he is typical of a growing block of conservatives who have become the virtual, if not the official, leaders of the opposition in the Senate. Many of the others are also relatively young and were also elected as Republicans in western states at a time when their party was in eclipse nationally. Some, like most senators, are lawyers, but others come from quite different milieus:

Paul Laxalt of Nevada, fifty-six, is the first U.S. senator of Basque descent. His father was a sheepherder. His mother was a Carson City boardinghouse keeper. Laxalt has six children and enjoys a prosperous law practice. His colleagues in the Senate like him for his cordiality and his obvious sincerity, if not for the cowboy boots he often sports.

Malcolm Wallop of Wyoming, a tall, balding cattle rancher, is forty-five and worth as much as $5 million. A Yalie with a degree in English literature, he plays polo on his own field at the foot of the Big Horn range, not far from the private landing strip on his 5600-acre ranch. His forebears are said to have led the English to so many victories over the French that the family name became a verb.1

Orrin Hatch of Utah, Senator Garn’s junior colleague, is a cool, direct, and mostly humorless man of forty-four, the father of six, who moved to Salt Lake City from Pittsburgh in 1969. His rise to political prominence can be attributed to his efforts to win the 1976 presidential nomination for Ronald Reagan.

Harrison (Jack) Schmitt of New Mexico, forty-three, is a polished, somewhat dandified bachelor who as a NASA astronaut walked on the moon in 1972.

James McClure of Idaho is a folksy, fifty-five-year-old attorney who boasts less affluence than the others, but more political experience than any of them.

Out of last year’s thirty-eight Republicans in the Senate, this new activist group on the Right numbered perhaps nine or ten, if one counts the older and better-known senator from North Carolina, Jesse Helms. In the present Congress, the group will probably make up a larger percentage of the Senate’s GOP members.

These newly influential senators seem to have no agreed-upon heroes or predecessors, although a few cite Robert Taft and Harry Truman as former senators they would like to emulate. They look like the small-town solid citizens they are, and they are not unusually eloquent; they tend to eschew flamboyance in favor of steady, plodding—and effective—work.

Unlike their Democratic colleagues of the same senatorial generation, they have tended not to sit back and wait for their turn to speak. They have learned the Senate’s arcane rules quickly and well. As a result, they have stolen a great deal of the thunder from more established Republican senators on the Right, such as Barry Goldwater of Arizona, Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, and John Tower of Texas, who by contrast seem to be relics of a bygone era. The men of the new group are both more cerebral and more practical. Some of the older conservatives, Garn points out, “just made a record for the folks at home. They were content just to sit back and oppose. . . . We feel we have to propose something.”

Both on the Senate floor and off, the new conservatives talk effusively about the need to “prevent the erosion of the competitive free-enterprise system and to enhance competition” (Schmitt), or complain about “that great new slavery—welfare” (Hatch). They fret over “the insatiable Soviet appetite” (Laxalt) and lament the passing of the Central Intelligence Agency’s capacity for covert action overseas—“The Soviets and Cubans are doing it, and so, for that matter, are the French; why not us?” (Wallop).

Almost all of them have become aroused against current American policy in southern Africa, and a few occasionally read speeches that sound as though they were (and may have been) written in Pretoria. “South Africa is the only country in the world with a 100 percent pro-U.S. voting record in the United Nations,” says Hatch. “Sure, they have problems, and all of us despise apartheid . . . but we can’t expect them to change overnight just because of our Supreme Court’s decisions.”

The true litmus test seems to be abortion. The latest struggle has been to forbid federal financing under Medicare of abortions, even in most cases of rape or incest. People applying to some of these senators for staff jobs on totally unrelated issues have reported being quizzed on their views about abortion. Indeed, Wallop is thought to have been denied full acceptance by the other members of the group because he is considered too liberal on abortion—so liberal that he is sometimes picketed when he goes home to Wyoming.

The Ninety-fifth Congress, which adjourned last October, provided many examples of the new conservatives’ influence in the Senate. Among other things, they managed to filibuster and kill the Carter Administration’s labor reform bill; they effectively prevented legislation for public financing of congressional elections from reaching the floor; they supported the sale of sophisticated fighter planes to Arab countries of the Middle East as well as to Israel; they opposed the original version of the Humphrey-Hawkins fullemployment bill; and they came close to denying ratification of the Panama Canal treaty. They also managed to soften the American position toward the white minority government in Rhodesia, and forced the State Department to give Prime Minister Ian Smith a visa to visit the United States. Their influence seems to go well beyond their numerical strength, perhaps because of their willingness to pose stark alternatives to executive-branch policies rather than play the traditional senatorial game of searching for consensus. Some of their alternatives have gained surprising support in a Senate that is generally more conservative than it used to be.

Although their staffs tend to be small and limited in experience, the new conservatives develop their own policy outside the official Senate GOP channels. They are grouped, for example, in what they ambitiously call the Senate Steering Committee, which meets weekly when Congress is in session to plan strategy on pressing issues. (Some of the traditional conservatives also belong, but the younger members have captured the initiative.) Most of them are also allied with or have had the support of the independent CSFC, which was established in 1974 “to identify conservatives with support at the local level and with the backbone to stand up to liberal pressures when elected to Congress.”

A prime mover behind both the steering committee and the CSFC is Paul Weyrich, a portly man who wears a Calvin Coolidge campaign button in his lapel and works near the Capitol in an office that is decorated with bumper stickers and religious pictures. Weyrich speaks of the young senators and their effectiveness with the pride of a schoolteacher with an exceptionally bright class. He is also impishly proud of the fact that the group seems to have several unofficial allies—other Republican senators who work behind the scenes with them, but who maintain an appearance of independence. Take Richard Lugar of Indiana, for example: “He is thought of as being more moderate than he really is,” says Weyrich with a grin. “That makes him rather useful to us.” (At the other extreme is Democrat Moynihan: “He gives our speeches and then votes the other way,” Weyrich complains.)

The secret of the new conservatives’ effectiveness, according to Weyrich, lies in style. These senators are more open with the media, even allowing reporters to attend occasional strategy sessions. Whereas Goldwater and some of his friends have made a hobby of railing against the so-called eastern liberal press, “Paul Laxalt will talk to people from the New York Times. He doesn’t hate them.” More important, Weyrich points out, the new opposition has learned how to construct ad hoc coalitions around particular issues and to use what he calls “the inside-outside punch”—producing pressure from back home on senators who are wavering on a given matter, and thereby winning votes without having to make any rash trade-offs within the Senate. “The Left has understood how to do this for years,” says Weyrich, “but we are just catching on.”

Eventually, as the new conservatives score more successes and become more daring, they are bound to be a serious threat to the established Senate Republican leadership, which has tended in recent years to be moderate and consensus-oriented. Already there is a dispute beneath the surface about how comfortably they can live with such liberal Republicans from the East and the upper Midwest as Lowell Weicker of Connecticut and Charles Percy of Illinois. One of the purest of the new conservatives is McClure of Idaho (who is all the more obscure because he must live and work in the shadow of his wellpublicized senior Democratic colleague, Frank Church). McClure was the only senator willing to sign last year a CSFC letter that listed liberal Republicans whom the organization thought deserved to be defeated in GOP primaries. McClure insisted, however, that he was not heartened by liberal Senator Edward Brooke’s defeat in the Massachusetts general election by Democrat Paul Tsongas. “We lost both ways,” he complains. “We got a Democrat and an even more liberal senator.”

But on the whole, last November’s election results pleased the new conservatives beyond all expectations. They see several possible new recruits to their cause: William Armstrong of Colorado, Roger Jepsen of Iowa, Thad Cochran of Mississippi, Alan Simpson of Wyoming, John Warner of Virginia, and Gordon Humphrey of New Hampshire. If they are counting correctly, the group may be able to apply substantial pressure from within the Senate toward their general goal of moving the Republican party to the Right.

“One of the deficiencies of the Republican party,” says Laxalt, “is that it doesn’t seem to stand for anything. Our group does; it takes strong positions . . . . George Wallace may have been right when he said there wasn’t much difference between the two parties. After all, the Senate passed the Panama treaties and sustained important presidential vetoes with Republican votes. We have a tendency, as Republicans, to be statesmen too often; we shouldn’t roll over so easily in the interests of the country’s national security.”

Laxalt is not the hardest worker in the group, but he may be its best organizer. Some Republican observers believe that he has his eye on the job of Howard Baker of Tennessee, the Senate Republican leader. Baker angered many of his supporters inside the Senate by voting for the Panama treaties and otherwise cooperating with the Carter White House last year, and one private survey indicated that Laxalt could have successfully challenged Baker when the Republicans organized for 1979. But he held back, looking to his own reelection race in 1980 and keeping the option of being national chairman of a Reagan campaign again.

“That’s when we strike,” says Weyrich, “in 1980. We get a conservative nominee [for President], and then we stand a chance of taking control of the Senate.” According to some, there is a contingency plan that provides for talking some incumbent senators into switching allegiance if the Republicans fall just a vote or two short of a Senate majority in the 1980 election. Two obvious potential recruits are Harry Byrd of Virginia, who was elected as an independent, and Edward Zorinsky of Nebraska, who used to be a Republican and who, as mayor of Omaha, was friendly with mayors Garn of Salt Lake City and Lugar of Indianapolis. The talk of Republican control of the Senate is not as much of a pipe dream as some observers think; because they won so many seats in 1974, the Senate Democrats may well suffer a much greater exposure of weak incumbents in 1980 than the Republicans will.

In the meantime, most of the new conservatives are thinking in more modest terms. McClure worries that a general shift of American political opinion to the Right could deprive the group of its special role in the Senate. “There are a lot of born-again fiscal conservatives among both Democrats and Republicans” he says, “and the new arrivals may not give appropriate credit to the old holders of the ground.” As Hatch sees it, there is a need to convince the public that “we’re not really the crazies that liberals would have everyone believe we are. We really care about this country.”

During the Ninty-sixth Congress, which convened in January, most members of the group will be satisfied to take a few more chances and score subtle philosophical points along with their practical victories. Wallop, the first nonlawyer ever to serve on the Senate Judiciary Committee, is musing about finding new “policies that will induce and encourage people to operate in a more self-reliant way” and arguing on behalf of “more enlightened selfinterest” in foreign policy. His colleagues hark back to the standard antiNew Deal Republican rhetoric of the last four decades. What is different now is that the conservatives may be striking a more responsive chord than usual, and they may be increasingly in a position to persuade the country to practice what they are preaching.


  1. This is a doubtful piece of etymology. In his new book, Thou Improper, Thou Uncommon Noun, Willard R. Espy writes: “In Tom Stoppard’s Lord Malquist and Mr. Moon (1966), Lord Malquist tells his friend: ‘In the 13th century Sir John Wallop so smote the French at sea that he gave a verb to the language. But there must be less energetic ways of doing that.’ Mr. Stoppard did not invent this tall story; he simply passed it on. In reality, Wallop descends from Old French waloper, ‘to gallop.’ ”