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Congressional Leadership Race

Anatomy of a Congressional Leadership Race

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In early December 1980, Republican members of the House of Representatives met to elect the person who would lead them in the upcoming Congress, the 97th.  John Rhodes of Arizona had announced a year before that he intended to step down having served seven years in the position and having tired of it.



Minority Whip Robert H. Michel (left) and Minority Leader John Rhodes (right) in 1978
Source: RHM. Scrapbooks. Box 6. f. Leadership

The race to replace him had two contenders.  Robert Michel of Illinois, a strategic expert skilled at the give and take of guiding legislation through the House, and Guy Vander Jagt of Michigan, an accomplished orator.  The difference between the two was not ideological.  Both were staunch conservatives with similar voting records.  But the contest reflected a contrast in styles and approach to the leadership post and in the direction in which the two would be likely to lead the House Republicans.  Michel was called the workhorse and Vander Jagt the showhorse.  Michel’s strength lay in working the House floor, in keeping the machinery of legislation well oiled.  For Vander Jagt, the objective was to get a Republican majority in 1982, a task which would require more aggressive leadership than Rhodes had provided.

Ronald Reagan had won the White House the month before, and Republicans had won the majority in the Senate, too.  Now that the Republicans controlled both, the House was expected to be the battleground for Ronald Reagan’s legislative agenda.  As a Washington Post reporter put it, “The man elected to be minority leader will determine to a great extent how that battle is fought between conservatives and liberals, Republicans and Democrats, perhaps for the next decade or more.” [WashingtonPost, December 8, 1980]

Here’s what a Minority Leader, at that time a Republican, did:  (1) oversaw the development and implementation of all Republican policy and strategy in the House, (2) served as liaison for Republican members with the administration and the Senate, (3) served to a great extent as a spokesman for Republican positions, (4) had overall responsibility for the coordination of Republican activities in the subcommittees and committees of the House as well as activities on the floor of the House, and (5) was responsible for appointments to various committees and commissions.  For information about all House leadership positions visit CongressLink. For a list of House Majority and Minority leaders, visit CongressLink.

The story of Bob Michel’s campaign to win the Minority Leader contest, in brief outline, follows:



Link: Basic biographical information about John Rhodes

On July 14, 1979, the National Journal, a widely respected inside-the-Beltway weekly journal, reported a story, “Filling John Rhodes’s Shoes.”  Rhodes, a Republican from Arizona, held the post of House Minority Leader, a position he first won in early 1974.

But Rhodes had hinted to a hometown reporter that he would not seek re-election to the post in 1980 and that he might retire from Congress altogether.

The actual leadership election would not take place until December 8, 1980, but mid-July was not too soon to begin jockeying for position.

Link: Basic biographical information about Guy Vander Jagt


 

The National Journal article speculated that two House Republicans would enter the race to succeed Rhodes.  Guy Vander Jagt of Michigan, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, was one. 

Although an underdog in the summer of 1979, Vander Jagt was a gifted orator. The Democratic House leader called him “Probably the best speaker in the House of Representatives.”  Washingtonian MagazIne listed him as one of the top speakers in Congress. His duties as chairman of the committee charged with electing Republicans to the House earned him the support of many of the 55 Republicans elected during his tenure.  The 1980 election promised to add to Vander Jagt’s base, too.

In terms of an approach to leadership, Vander Jagt’s plan was to “knock heads” and see that the Republican party developed clear positions to differentiate itself from the Democratic majority.




Robert H. Michel of Illinois, the Minority Whip since 1975 and Rhodes’s second-in-command, was the other candidate to succeed Rhodes.   Michel had his strengths.  As Whip, he had been a good counter of votes and had maintained party discipline—at least 90 percent of the 159 House Republicans usually supported their party’s position.

Although Michel was thought to lack Vander Jagt’s aggressiveness, “Michel is the slight favorite because, after 22 years in Congress, he is a more experienced House insider,” the National Journal reported.  “Republicans, however, may be looking for a different skill when they choose their leader for the 97th Congress.”

The Tally of Michel Support, ca. March 1980, One of a Series
The Tally of Michel Support, ca. 3.1980, One of a Series
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Source:  RHM Papers, Leadership Series. Box 2.  F. 96th.  Leadership Contests 1980 (1)
The Michel folks began lining up support as the National Journal article appeared.  The earliest tally sheet of support in the Michel Papers, housed at The Dirksen Congressional Center -- http://www.dirksencenter.org/findingaids/index.htm -- indicates that on June 25 he contacted Ralph Regula of Ohio for support.  By the end of July, Michel had spoken with 76 more colleagues (his tally sheet indicates he did not speak with the Illinois Republican delegation but counted them firmly in his column).  Comments from members included these:  “Wants leader to mix up more,” “should be normal progression,” “appreciated being asked,” “appreciated early contact,” “anxious to help.”

Vander Jagt's Travel Schedule, March-July 1980
Vander Jagt's Travel Schedule, March-7.1980

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Source: RHM Papers. Leadership Series. Box 2. F. 96th Congress. Leadership Contests, 1980 (1)

Vander Jagt presumably conducted his own count.  He also used his position as National Republican Congressional Committee chair to travel the country on behalf of his party’s candidates.  Over eleven continuous days in November, for example, he flew 8,950 miles in 29 different planes.  By the end of the year, he had logged 500,000 miles campaigning for a Republican majority in the House.

Page 1 of Michel's Recollections
Michel's Recollections
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Source: RHM Papers. Leadership Series. Box 2. F. 96th Congress. Leadership Contests, 1980 (1)

In December 1979, Bob Michel gathered a group of informal advisers to size up the situation.  The election was a year away, but Michel wanted a sense of his support.  Two things worried him:  John Rhodes might reverse himself and decide to seek the leadership post again, and Vander Jagt was building up a head of steam.  As Michel told the group, “But I think we’ve got to be realistic enough to know that if its . . . if there is a prospect of this thing [of Rhodes retiring] that a few people you got to be just darned candid with them and tell them forthrightly yes – we’re prepared to go and I want you all with me . . . .”
  At last, John Rhodes formally announced his decision to step down from his leadership post, setting off a scramble for not only the Minority Leader position, but those down the leadership ladder, too.

Notes From December 11, 1979, Telephone Call
Notes From 12.1.1979, Telephone Call
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Source: RHM Papers. Press Series. Box 29. F. Subject. Republican Leadership Race 1980

Marty Tolchin, a reporter for the New York Times, called Michel on December 11 about the status of the leadership race.  Michel was evasive, still unsure of Rhodes’s plans.  When asked if he had committed to make the race for Leader, Michel responded, “Well, I’m more than thinking about it.  There comes a time in this place when you either go for broke and find out what your colleagues think about you or you get out.”

John Myers to Michel, December 19, 1979, Expressing Interest in the Whip Position
John Myers to Michel, 12.19.1979, Expressing Interest in the Whip Position
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Source: RHM Papers. Leadership Series. Box 2. F. 96th Congress. Leadership Contests, 1980 (1)

From December 12 through December 20, the Michel camp recontacted more than 40 Republicans to reaffirm their support or to obtain commitments from the wavering.  This amounted to his second concerted effort to round up votes, following the one in July.  All told, Michel had spoken with over 100 colleagues and, in his words, “had a real good response.”
  “Vander Jagt’s leadership drive begins” announced The Ann Arbor News, a Michigan newspaper, on December 16 reporting the Michigan Congressman’s formal announced of candidacy.


Memorandum on Press Relations, 1.7.1980
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Source: RHM Papers. Press Series. Box 28. F. Subject. Michel Office-General

As Michel’s staff anticipated a more active phase of the leadership race, they stated five objectives in a media plan presented to Michel:  to build “a reputation for experience, intelligence and effectiveness,” to have a greater impact on the national debate, to enhance the image of the Republican Party, to develop solid access to the press, and, finally, to “get re-elected to the House and elected leader.”

Michel’s press secretary appreciated the challenge of positioning him better in the press.  In a memo to his boss, he wrote:  “The bottom line is that in all of your other capacities, you have never had a real need to spend more time perfecting public relations, scheduling and the rest.  As leader, and even as a candidate for leader, you can’t affor[d] not to.  We ought to spend this year getting ready, or your staff and the press will frustrate you all the way to the funny farm.”

Peoria Journal Star, March 3, 1980
Peoria Journal Star, 3.3.1980
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Source: RHM Papers. Press Series. Box 29. F. Subject. Republican Leadership Race 1980

In an interview with UPI reporter Robert Mackay in March 1980, Bob Michel expressed confidence that he would win the Minority Leader post.  He pointed to his strong support, stating that “our mission between now and the end of the year is to make absolutely sure there is no erosion of that good bedrock and to convince the more junior members during the rest of the year that I’m the best qualified to lead them the next two years.”

Notes from Mackay Interview
Notes from Mackay Interview
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Source: RHM Papers, Press Series. Box 28. F. Subject. Michel, Robert (2)

To that end, Michel would hold what he called leadership strategy meetings seven times from March to December.  About 40 House members attended these sessions.  He also would spend more than $20,000 of his own campaign funds helping to elect Republicans to the House.

Ronald Reagan Giving His Acceptance Speech at the Republican National Convention, Detroit, Michigan, 7/17/80
Ronald Reagan Giving His Acceptance Speech at the Republican National Convention, Detroit, Michigan, 7.17.1980
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Source: E10-2, located at Ronald Reagan Presidential Library

The impending race between Vander Jagt and Michel began to draw more national media attention following the Republican National Convention in July at which Ronald Reagan became the party’s nominee for president.

New York Times, 7.20.1980
New York Times, 7.20.1980
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Source: RHM Papers. Press Series. Box 29. F. Subject. Republican Leadership Race 1980


Annotated Washington Star, 7.29.1980
Annotated Washington Star, 7.29.1980
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Source: RHM Papers. Press Series. Box 29. F. Subject. Republican Leadership Race 1980

The New York Times reported that the House leadership contest  for Republicans “reflects not only a profound conflict in style and approach to leadership but also the direction the party itself may take in Congress.”  Or as one Vander Jagt supporter put it, “The issue implicit in this race is whether the Republicans will increasingly engage in the politics of confrontation that younger members favor or the politics of compromise.”  Or as a Washington Star reporter put it, “do they want an orator or a tactician leading them in the 97th Congress.”  Interesting is that Michel’s press secretary counted the mentions of Vander Jagt and Michel in the Star piece:  eight paragraphs devoted to the former, six to Michel.

Vander Jagt to Devine, 9.19.1980
Vander Jagt to Devine, 9.19.1980
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Source: RHM Papers. Campaigns and Politics. Box 15. F. 1980. Vander Jagt (1)

As the election approached, the competition between the two heightened.  Vander Jagt wrote Sam Devine (R-OH) in September apologizing for not courting him more vigorously.  “Please do not conclude that any failure by me to spend time impressing upon you my case for Minority Leader means any slackening of interest in the job.” After explaining how hard he was working to elect Republicans to the House, Vander Jagt said, “In the end I’m sure you will judge the two contenders on the basis of how well we performed the various leadership jobs to which you have elected us.  And this is the job you elected me to do.”

Congratulatory Letter from Bob Michel, 11.7.1980
Congratulatory Letter from Bob Michel, 11.7.1980
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Source: RHM Papers. Leadership Series. Box 2. F. 96th Congress. Leadership Contests, 1980 (2)

Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush won the presidential election on November 4th. In a surprise, Republicans also captured control of the Senate, leaving only the House in Democratic hands.  In a sense, this raised the stakes for the future House Minority Leader who would have to cobble together support from Democrats in order to pass legislation favored by the White House and the Senate.

Both Bob Michel and Guy Vander Jagt were easily re-elected to their House seats.  And both knew how important it was to firm up their support.  Michel sent out congratulatory letters on November 7 to the newly elected Republicans, a group normally thought to support Vander Jagt.  He reminded them of his current leadership position and that he could assist them with committee assignments since he served on the Executive Committee of the Committee on Committees.  He included biographical information and encouraged the freshmen “to make searching inquiries from whatever sources you choose as to my fitness and ability to serve as your Leader.”

A November 14 tally sheet by the Michel camp showed 12 senior and 35 freshmen as yet uncommitted to either candidate.

Letter to David Dreier, 11.21.1980
Letter to David Dreier, 11.21.1980
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Source: RHM Papers. Leadership Series. Box 2. F. 96th Congress. Leadership Contests, 1980 (2)

Recognizing the importance of that freshman vote, Michel persuaded six junior colleagues, all current freshmen (among them Dick Cheney), to sign a letter on his behalf that went to all incoming freshmen.  “Bob is a legislative craftsman who will be able to build the coalitions necessary to pass as much of our new President’s program as we can,” the authors wrote, and in a nod to Vander Jagt’s perceived strength, “as well as to lead a floor fight to stake out our position on the parts of our program where the votes aren’t there.”

Vander Jagt Talking Points
Vander Jagt Talking Points
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Source: RHM Papers. Leadership Series. Box 2. F. 96th Congress. Leadership Contests, 1980 (3)

The Michel forces also obtained a copy of Guy Vander Jagt’s talking points in support of his candidacy.  They stressed his fundraising ability, his media savvy, his subcommittee work, his ability “to dramatize differences between Democrat and Republican legislative positions,” and his oratorical skill.

Remarks Prepared to Introduce Michel
Remarks Prepared to Introduce Michel
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Source: RHM Papers. Press Series. Box 28. F. Michel, Robert (1)

Michel’s talking points took a different form, that of an introduction for the Minority Whip prepared by the Michel staff for someone else to deliver.  As outlined in the document, Michel’s strengths lay in his seniority and his progression through the House Republican leadership ranks.  In a crack at Vander Jagt, the introduction stated that “You can usually put politicians in three categories:  those who promote big things, those who produce big things, and and [sic] those who do neither.”  The introduction put Michel in the producer category.  “That’s why he’s the favorite for Republican leader of the House.  He produces.  He knows the House, its rules and procedures and he knows its members, their personal perks [sic], the idiosyncrasies of their districts and their allegiances.  He knows what to do, how to do it and when.”

On December 4 Michel held his final leadership strategy meeting before the December 8th vote.

 

December 8, 1980

Rumors flew back and forth across the House that Michel was strong-arming colleagues with the threat of withholding committee assignments.  Vander Jagt was calling in his chits with the 52 newly-elected freshmen who needed no reminder as to who signed the $10,000 and $20,000 checks many received from the congressional campaign committee he headed.

The suspense in the race was heightened by rumors from both sides that the protagonists were within four votes of each other.

The contest became increasingly personal.  “Any leadership race is as personal as you can get,” Vander Jagt said.  “It’s eyeball to eyeball.  Promises and rewards are nothing unusual.” [Washington Post, December 8, 1980, A2]

“We have different personalities,” Michel said in an interview with the Washington Post.  “I’ve never been all that interested in personal aggrandizement as Guy has.  I don’t crave the spotlight.  I get more joy and fun out of trying to orchestrate the talents of the others and trying to extract the best.”    He continued:  “It takes more than a TV image to get things enacted into law.  You can make beautiful speeches, but the bottom line is going to be enactment of the Reagan program.”  [Washington Post, December 8, 1980, A2]

 

The Republican Conference meeting convened at Monday morning, December 8.  One hundred ninety Republicans attended, putting the number of votes required to win the Minority Leader post at 96.

The Vander Jagt partisans, however, disrupted the planned agenda.  Normally, candidates for leader were placed in nomination by carefully selected colleagues who spoke on their behalf with the candidates themselves remaining silent.  But Vander Jagt wanted to make his own statement and did so passionately.

Michel Statement, 12.8.1980
Michel Statement, 12.8.1980
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Source: RHM Papers. Leadership Series. Box 2. F. 96th Congress. Leadership Contests, 1980 (3)

That action forced Michel to make an impromptu statement, one hand-written during the meeting.  Vander Jagt’s power play, one designed to showcase his oratorical skill, angered Michel, as his remarks suggest.

Final Vote Tally Signed by Conference Chair Jack Kemp
Final Vote Tally Signed by Conference Chair Jack Kemp
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Source: RHM Papers. Leadership Series. Box 2. F. 96th Congress. Leadership Contests, 1980 (3)


Photographs, 12.8.1980
Photographs, 12.8.1980
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Source: RHM Papers. Scrapbooks. Box 5. F. Great Moments in the Life of RHM (2)


Richard Nixon Telegram, 19.9.1980
Richard Nixon Telegram, 12.9.1980
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Source: RHM Papers, Presidential Scrapbooks. Box 1. F. 18


Michel's Reply, 12.19.1980
Michel's Reply, 12.19.1980
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Source: RHM papers. Personal. Box 14. F. 1980 N


The anger passed swiftly when the election results became known. Bob Michel won the Minority Leader post in a secret ballot by 103 to 87. 

Defeat was a bitter surprise to Vander Jagt who in the prior week had sent thank you notes in advance to 102 Republicans who had promised to support him.  His own final headcount showed him with 96 committed votes – nine more than he eventually received.  Many of the members listed for Vander Jagt was actually “double pledgers,” men who told both candidates they would support them.  When the Republicans caucused, Michel supporters were clever enough to sit on either side of the “double pledgers” to glimpse their actual vote and to make sure it was for the Illinoisian.

 “I could just about break out into song,” he exclaimed to his colleagues before acknowledging Vander Jagt and paying tribute to John Rhodes.  He then posed this rhetorical question, “How do I perceive my leadership role?”  Click here for the answer: http://www.dirksencenter.org/images/
RHMichel/rhmleader1980.PDF
. The bottom line, Michel said, was “the enactment of the Reagan program.”  Intent on shedding the image of a “minority,” Michel said he wanted to be called Republican Leader.

 

Letters of Congratulations from Michel's Colleagues

Bennett M. Stewart
(D-IL)

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Douglas Applegate
(D-OH)

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Norman Y. Mineta
(D-CA)

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Robert Walker
(R-PA)
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Jim Courter
(R-NJ)
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Donald Rumsfeld
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Source: RHM Papers. Personal. 1980. Congratulations as Leader

“House Republicans chose pragmatists over partisans to lead them in the next Congress, brightening the outlook for passage of Ronald Reagan’s legislative program” opened the December 9 issue of the Wall Street Journal.

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