Republicans on the Defensive

So in life you get what you deserve? Not always, a few of us devoutly hope. On the other hand, come the November elections, the Republican Party may get exactly what it deserves from disgusted voters — namely, a swift kick in the pants. Whereas, on yet another hand (assuming any more are available), it is necessary to ask whether the voters deserve what they’d get by giving the Republicans what they deserve. The mind, as so often is the case in politics, boggles.

For days, the Grand Old Party has been trying to shake off recollections of the fatuous $100 rebate its Senate majority leader — and potential presidential candidate — Bill Frist had proposed for assuagement of voter pain from $3 gas. Better that than some all-too-conspicuous Republican interest in a windfall profits tax on oil … but not that much better.

On Sunday, leading Republican second-guessed their president’s choice for director of the Central Intelligence Agency. Kind of a typical start to the week. Capitol Hill Republicans in general seem to have no coherent idea of what they would like their party to do for America. They’re into maintenance, not mission — maintenance, specifically, of their majorities in the House and Senate.

Well, guess what. A little more maintenance of the sort the party has been indulging in — Jack Abramoff; the bridge to nowhere; mental muddle on immigration; non-creative thinking on energy; even failure to brag about the economic strength generated by tax-cutting — and prospects will shrink for maintaining anything heavier than a hangover.

That’s not the main point here, I hasten to interject. I have, in fact, two points larger than why-so-many-Republicans-sound-so-dumb.

First, it’s in the nature of things for political parties to get complacent after a long stay in power. The Republicans have ruled the House since 1995, the Senate since 2001. It’s nothing like the seeming eternity for which the Democrats ran Capitol Hill, but expectations are higher than they used to be, not least the expectations you yourself invite during a high-powered campaign.

The problem with success is that it breeds incaution, fatigue and arrogance of the sort that seems to have animated Jack Abramoff. Look at Tony Blair, his government sapped by scandals and general weariness, as expressed in last week’s local elections. The enjoyment of power, as both we and the British ought to know by now, can become an end in itself, rather than a means to do good things.

That’s where the matter of deserts comes up. In politics, as in the commercial marketplace, you submit yourself to judgment. If you expect voters/customers to buy, you’d better have something to sell — unlike today’s Republicans, who fail to light any fires with their presumed inability to address national problems.

All that this extremely valid consideration does, of course, is raise the question of alternatives. To put it another way:

Second, does America want the Democrats back in power? Karl Rove sure doesn’t — not with wild and woolly liberals set to run the joint if voters kick out the Republicans. The New York Times reported Monday that Rove is hoping to rouse the party base by portraying the Democrats as bad news for people who care about taxes and victory in Iraq. Do we really, truly, honestly want Nancy Pelosi as speaker? This is the kind of question about which Rove hopes we will think really, really hard.

It’s manifestly a fair question. An even fairer one would be: What kind of party is it that can’t do anything more convincing than point at the dire and dirty alternatives? The kind of party the Republicans have become? That is the truly troublesome question for Americans who have looked to the GOP for action, as well as common sense, on vital questions like taxes, national defense and immigration. Are the Republicans as drained and divided and nervous and wrung-out as they look? And if they are, would the Democrats be that much worse?

They might very well be, but the willingness of Americans to nod agreeably at that conclusion is a proposition on which Frist and his colleagues shouldn’t wager their lives, fortunes and sacred honor.