See if this rings any bells: The country was in a double crisis – budgetary and ideological. The cupboards were bare. The deficit was ridiculous.
Democrats, unwilling to yield on program cuts, were too timid to make a straightforward case for new taxes. Republicans, unwilling to countenance a whisper about taxes, were too timid to make a straightforward case for meaningful cuts.
This was the way U.S. Sen. Jim McClure, of Idaho, saw it back in 1990, as he drew near the end of his 24 years in Congress. And McClure had an approach that you barely ever hear a politician utter anymore.
“All right,” he told Democratic leaders in Congress, according to a column by the Boston Globe’s Tom Oliphant. “I’ll meet you halfway.”
Halfway? Halfway was Bush the First’s famous flip-flop on taxes, when he proposed a budget that used both cuts and new “revenue” to plug a big hole in the budget. Newt Gingrich and the boys were huffing and puffing and threatening to blow the government down, and McClure was meeting people halfway.
McClure died Saturday, but the idea of halfway perished long ago. Though he was a real conservative, McClure was also a process-oriented politician who believed in balance, in compromise, in the long view. All the things that nobody likes in the heat of a political moment, and all the things we say we love when we’re casting a fond, retrospective eye.
Would McClure last a second today? Would he be offered even a sip of tea at the party?
McClure had all the right positions for his wing – pro-business, anti-tax, anti-government, pro-states’ rights – but he mostly lacked the lust to demonize.
Here’s how McClure criticized big government after winning re-election to the Senate in 1978: “Idaho people are not all that happy with the kind of federal government that wants to manage their lives and spend their money.”
Here’s what he had to say about President Jimmy Carter’s efforts to get him to change his mind about the Panama Canal treaty: “I’m somewhat doubtful he can convince me of that.”
Here’s how he assailed the Carter White House over an immigration proposal that would have included an amnesty provision: “With all that the White House has said about alleged unemployment caused by these aliens, it seems incongruous that they now propose to make them legal.”
Not all that happy? Somewhat doubtful? Incongruous?
When Californians passed a property-tax cap in 1978, he said, “I applaud the motives behind Proposition 13, and I hope elected officials in all levels of government will get the message.”
Meanwhile, Steve Symms, an Idaho representative with a better feel for the bellicose, called it “the first shot in an all-out war against excessive taxation at all levels.”
Now that’s more like it. If our politics had a McClure branch and a Symms branch – a “message” branch and an “all-out war” branch – is there any question which one has flowered?
In the wake of McClure’s death, the accolades have come pouring in. Among many other things, McClure has been getting credit for helping to establish the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness and the Sawtooth and Hells Canyon national recreation areas.
It’s worth remembering how that happened and how long those battles took. He was no tree hugger – he championed James Watt as interior secretary. He worried more about logging and mining than preserving wild land, and he fought and voted against the wilderness bill, though he did help shepherd the creation of the Hells Canyon and Sawtooth areas.
He worked the tug-of-war of the legislative process, fighting here and yielding there, navigating the competing interests of Idahoans, joining forces with ideological foes like Cecil Andrus, battling through the dull, difficult, unsexy and unwarlike process to get the best that he could, as he saw it.
He stood on principle, but not gaudily.
In 1982, McClure sponsored a bill that would have allowed President Ronald Reagan to set oil prices in an energy crisis. With the oil crisis of 1979 fresh in mind, McClure saw it as a sensible measure to protect Americans in an emergency.
Reagan vetoed the bill – a bit of simplistic grandstanding. He didn’t need any “magic federal plan,” he said. What would save us all would be markets and common sense.
“The arguments made by the president in his veto message are not persuasive,” McClure said at the time. “I congratulate the president, but he had better pray as he has never prayed before that there be no interruption of petroleum supplies while he is in office.”
The arguments are not persuasive. Jim McClure was one of the most powerful Idahoans ever to serve in Congress, but – to his credit – nobody ever called him The Hammer.