Every revolution begins with the power of an idea and ends when clinging to power is the only idea left. The epitaph for the movement that started when Newt Gingrich and his forces rose from the back bench of the House chamber in 1994 may well have been written last week in the same medium that incubated it: talk radio. On conservative commentator Laura Ingraham's show, the longest-serving Republican House Speaker in history explained why he would not resign despite a sex scandal that has produced a hail of questions about his leadership and the failure to stop one of his members from cyberstalking teenage congressional pages. "If I fold up my tent and leave," Dennis Hastert told her, "then where does that leave us? If the Democrats sweep, then we'd have no ability to fight back and get our message out."
That quiet admission may have been the most damning one yet in the unfolding scandal surrounding Florida Congressman Mark Foley: holding on to power has become not just the means but also the end for the onetime reformers who in 1994 unseated a calcified and corrupted Democratic majority. Washington scandals, it seems, have been following a Moore's law of their own, coming at a faster clip every time there is a shift in control. It took 40 years for the House Democrats to exhaust their goodwill. It may take only 12 years for the Republicans to get there.
If you think politicians clinging to power isn't big news, then you may have forgotten the pure zeal of Gingrich's original revolutionaries. They swept into Washington on the single promise that they would change Capitol Hill. And for a time, they did. Vowing to finish what Ronald Reagan had started, they stood firm on the three principles that defined conservatism: fiscal responsibility, national security and moral values. Reagan, who had a few scandals in his day, didn't always follow his own rules. But his doctrine turned out to be a good set of talking points for winning elections in a closely divided country, and the takeover was completed with the inauguration of George W. Bush as President.
But after controlling both houses of Congress and the White House for most of Bush's six years in office, the party has a governing record that has come unmoored from those Grand Old Party ideals. The exquisite political machinery that aces the elections has begun to betray the platform. To win votes back home, lawmakers have been spending taxpayer money like sailors on leave, producing the biggest budget deficits in U.S. history. And the party's approach to national security has taken the country into a war that most Americans now believe was a mistake and that the government's own intelligence experts say has shaped "a new generation of terrorist leaders and operatives."
One of the problems is that after the Republicans got into power, the system began to change them, not just the other way around. Among the first promises the G.O.P. majority broke was the setting of term limits. Their longtime frustrations in the minority didn't necessarily make them any better at reaching across the aisle either. Compromise, that most central of congressional checks and balances, has been largely replaced by a kind of calculated cussedness that has left the G.O.P. isolated and exposed in times of crisis.