The scandal swirling around disgraced former Rep. Mark Foley (R.-Fla.) does not change the fact that the best outcome for America in the November elections is for the Republican Party to retain its majority in both houses of Congress.
That does not mean, however, that the Republican Party should move forward under the same congressional leadership after Election Day. It emphatically should not.
Conservatives differ on whether House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R.-Ill.) ought to resign right now, but it cannot be reasonably argued that Hastert is the best possible choice to lead Republicans in the next Congress.
He is not.
The party’s problem today is not its basic principles, its grass-roots supporters or the energetic and committed conservatives who populate its congressional back benches—and who have often, even from there, pushed the national agenda in the right direction. The party’s problem is its leadership.
Win or lose in November, congressional Republicans should move out of leadership positions those veteran members who too often in recent years have been guilty of pulling the party away from its core principles. They must elect in their place new leaders who are committed small-government conservatives and who have the will to fight for, and the wit to forcefully and eloquently defend, a Reaganite conservative agenda against the always-antagonistic establishment media.
And there is one other characteristic the new Republican congressional leaders must have: the gumption to stand up against a Republican President when he asks them to expand the federal welfare state.
Hastert’s biggest mistakes as speaker came when he sided with President Bush against the conservatives in his own party. He did this when he pushed through the No Child Left Behind Act, sponsored by now-House Majority Leader John Boehner (R.-Ohio), thus massively increasing the federal role in education. He also did this when he kept a vote open for three hours in the wee hours of the morning to pressure Republicans to change their votes to secure passage of President Bush’s $8-trillion Medicare prescription drug benefit.
Unless a future Republican Congress and Republican President can reverse these measures—and it is a certainty no Democratic Congress will do so—Americans will be paying for Hastert’s mistakes for decades.
Despite these errors, conservative voters should not overlook the real accomplishments the Republican House majority has achieved. It enacted the Bush tax cuts, and voted to abolish the death tax. It took real strides on social and cultural issues, voting to ban partial-birth abortion, to ban all human cloning and to limit the appellate jurisdiction of the federal courts in cases involving the Pledge of Allegiance and marriage.
Last December, it passed House Judiciary Chairman James Sensenbrenner’s (R.-Wis.) tough immigration enforcement bill, and last week, overshadowed by the Foley scandal, Congress approved a bill, pushed by House conservatives this year, that authorizes 700 miles of double-fencing at the border.
After Hurricane Katrina, when President Bush went on a spending frenzy, the conservatives on the House Republican Study Committee forced a reluctant Hastert and then-Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R.-Tex.) to back spending cuts to offset at least some of Bush’s spending increases.
But too many of the good things House conservatives forced through on their side of Capitol Hill never became law because they stalled in the Republican Senate. This was due in part to the defection of moderate Republicans in that chamber, but also to the weak and vacillating leadership of Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R.-Tenn.)—who is not running for reelection.
After the November elections, regardless of their outcome, a great struggle will begin for the post-Bush direction of the GOP. The first engagement in that struggle will be the congressional leadership elections, which will give way almost immediately to the race for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination.
Republicans in Congress must not attempt to just push the current leaders up the succession ladder. There should be an open, public process, over at least a month, in which the party’s grass-roots supporters have the opportunity to voice their values and preferences for party leaders, and in which newly elected members have a chance to meet and seriously evaluate the leadership candidates.
The GOP became a majority standing on the sturdy three-legged stool of Reagan conservatism: limited government, traditional values and a strong national defense. The party teeters now to the degree it has compromised on these three principles. The non-negotiable qualification for all future GOP congressional leaders is that they must be forceful, unapologetic—and proven—advocates of the full Reagan vision.