Politics

How Republicans Can Get Back on Track

Washington Examiner editorial board chief Mark Tapscott sums things up pretty nicely: “When Republicans worry more about staying in government than about limiting government, they get thrown out of government.”

I disagree, however, with his long range forecast:  “Frankly, I doubt that the GOP can change enough to avoid a long slide into a political oblivion not unlike that suffered by the Whigs for their inability to confront the issue of slavery.”

The most fervent ideologues, those of us who cared about the election during the spring and summer and actually care who the minority leader might be next session, always overreact to elections. When our side wins, it’s a sweeping mandate for every dot and tittle of our platform. When we lose, it’s because we failed to hew to our core principles and, because politicians are politicians, we are on a slippery slope to Hell in a handcart.

Neither reaction is reasonable. The voters threw the bums out Tuesday for a variety of reasons, some rational, some otherwise. The bottom line, though, is in Tapscott’s summation. The Republican congressional leadership cared more about holding on to power than leading the country in the direction they promised two years earlier.

All the major scandals stemmed from that. Tom DeLay, Jack Abramoff, and the K-Street Project were all about maximizing the levers of power to maintain it. Ditto the shameful cover-up of the Mark Foley scandal. What’s more important, protecting underage congressional employees from a sleazy predator or keeping an incumbent in a safe seat? Apparently, Hastert and Friends thought the latter. Even the debate on the war in Iraq and the conduct of the fight against Islamist terrorists, while legitimately a point of ideological contention with the Democrats, seemed to hinge more on looking ahead to November 7 than avoiding another September 11. Rightfully, it cost them.

A change in the leadership is already underway. Speaker Denny Hastert is gone. So is Deborah Pryce, the chair of the House Republican Conference. My guess is that John Boehner, Roy Blunt, and others will feel the ax soon.

Hugh Hewitt and N.Z. Bear think they should slow down and consult the grassroots. Really, though, hardly anyone outside the House knows John Shadegg or Mike Pence or any of the other candidates. So, while I hope the congressional Republicans heed the blogosphere on the kind of leader we want, it’s up to them to pick the man they will work with on a daily basis for the next two years.

President Bush, too, is taking his defeat like a man, owning up to his own responsibility in Tuesday’s rebuke. He’s acceded to the bipartisan demand to let Don Rumsfeld go, simultaneously removing a lightning rod and signaling his willingness to listen. That’s good.

The cost to the party will be steep. With the right candidates, they can retain the White House and regain the Senate in 2008. They’re unlikely to be able to recoup their losses in the House that soon. In the meantime, conservative appointments to the Supreme Court and other key posts are unlikely.

The good news is that it’s easier to be principled in opposition than in power. Come January, the Republican leadership will suddenly remember that they are in favor of smaller government and fiscal discipline. And ethics.

Further, we always write off losing parties. They invariably come back. Not all that long ago, the GOP had a “lock” on the Electoral College that all but precluded the election of a Democratic president. That was before Bill Clinton picked the lock, with the help of demographic shifts in places like California. In recent years, it looked like the Republicans had a stranglehold on the House of Representatives, too, with their ingenious gerrymandering. Not so much, it turns out.

As President Bush noted yesterday, the Democrats now share responsibility for governance. If they exercise that power well, they’ll hold onto it for a while. If they don’t, the Republicans will be poised to take it from them. That’s how it’s always been.


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