The Winner's Circle: Can Republicans Learn to Lead?

Does winning a winner make? This question has been asked about the Republican Party since they acceded to numeric ascendancy in the House of Representatives in 1994. If anyone has answered it in the affirmative, they have done so beyond my earshot.

Oh, there was a honeymoon of sorts, like the marriage of a lawyer to a short-order cook, overcharged, underdone, overworking, underachieving, raw nerves and raw food, haste and waste, flaps and flips and flops. The Contract with America contracted: some of it even passed, but then Clinton vetoed the items that didn’t follow his line, and the Supreme Court threw out the line-item veto. After that came the government shutdown, with Newt Gingrich starring as Ebenezer Scrooge; by the time it reopened, all the Republicans had embraced the wimp factor and rediscovered their inner children.

Now, a dozen years later, not a whole lot has changed. Most movement in Congress begins with the Democrats proposing. Then the Republicans come along to dispose. It’s the same old same-old, where they end up enacting the Democrats’ agenda, minus a few dollars here and there, then getting blamed for being chintzy with the check book. Right now, the Republicans are about to enact the minimum wage increase requested by the Democrats. Nothing wrong with the idea itself, considering that the old minimum has been losing serious ground to inflation. But no political points are scored when the Republicans are seen as dogs being wagged by the Democrat tail.

True, there is more to this than a failure of the vision thing. To an extent the nature of the political enterprise militates against Republican success. Legislatures are places where laws are passed. This is done by creating a bill. “How A Bill Becomes A Law” is the name of a chapter in every Civics textbook ever published, and sure enough, every time a bill does in fact become a law, there is a sense of victory, of democratic achievement, and everyone is bursting with excitement.

The process has worked. Movement has happened. The system is in synch. It is producing. It is creating. Wheels were grinding, then snags came, but the snags were unraveled, except someone threw up a barrier, but then a compromise was offered, which in turn led to negotiations, which involved some white-knuckle moments, all because of one stumbling-block, and for a moment there it seemed like all was lost, except that in the eleventh hour a deal was proposed and arms were twisted. 218-217, what a nail-biter! Democracy marches on.

Yes, but what was it that emerged from all this frenzy? Something useful? Something of import, of value, of meaning? Was it an improvement upon what went before? These questions are considered uncouth, uncivil, insensitive. Why, after all the work that went into fashioning the Emperor’s New Clothes Posterity Facilitation Act of 2006, it would be the height of ignorance to challenge its provisions. Not to mention the fact that no one is quite sure just what are those provisions.

Contrast this scenario with the bill that was blocked. All the wheels seemed to be greased, but then they got bogged down in the mud. Some obdurate hayseed Congressman from Nebraska stood in the way. All because he wanted a new tetherball pole for his district. What backwardness! What obscurantism! Imagine sabotaging the Sojourner Truth Memorial Anti-Vivisection And Abused Women’s Booboo-Kissing Act over some parochial concern. Next thing you know women’s suffrage will be reversed.

Thus there is a natural presumption in favor of doing. If you are a paid legislator, you should be legislating. When the wheels of the legislative process are set in motion, it is a given that those are the wheels of progress. Since the Democrats are the ones who want government to do more, they have a built-in advantage. They propound action; if the Republican’s respond with inaction, they are the obstructionists and there is a Do-Nothing Congress.

Such inevitable occurrences as the upward mobility of the minimum wage should be either spearheaded by Republicans as part of a larger growth package or should be built into the system with an indexing mechanism. There is no reason why a minority party should control the tempo. The true winner is the one who sets the agenda. This way the Republicans do the right thing, and get punished for it, too. Like the old joke of the woman on her deathbed whose dying request is that her husband marry their neighbor. “But I thought you hated her?” he asks. She replies: “I do.”


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