The Way Back for Republicans

It’s not just the war, or the travails of former Congressman Mark Foley, or any number of other things that political experts and pollsters tell us has jeopardized Republican control of Congress in the coming election. More than anything else, it is the perception that Republicans stand for little more than maintaining power for its own sake.

In former days, Republicans had ideas. They even had an ideology from which those ideas sprang. They forced the media and liberal Democrats to debate those ideas and the country was better off for it. Now, in just 12 years of majority status, they may be about to do what it took Democrats 40 years to achieve — disgust the public to the point that it wants to clean house (and possibly the Senate, too).

The problem is Democrats have fewer ideas than Republicans. They, too, crave power for its own sake and would return to their failed class warfare of the past, the only warfare they support. They will grow government even more than Republicans have and they will raise taxes and retreat from engaging America’s enemies, thus encouraging those enemies to come after us with renewed zeal and an assurance that God is on their side.

Shortly after Republicans won a majority in the 1994 elections, I recall warning them not to be arrogant. Have your celebrations, I said. Enjoy your new status, but don’t use the gavel as a club. Kindness and grace in victory, I noted, goes a long way. Because Republicans chose to crow instead of the harder, but more rewarding path of pursuing consensus, they now appear about to reap what they have sown. In addition to watching Democrats, if they are victorious, pursue previously failed policies, Republicans will also have to put up with endless investigations of the Bush administration, which can only fuel bitterness and further paralyze government.

If Democrats win one or both houses, they will face the same choices Republicans had in 1994. They can return fire, like some Middle East revenge-seeker, perpetuating a cycle that never stops, or they can announce that America’s problems and challenges are too large for one party and work with Republicans toward common objectives. My guess is Democrats will crow like the Republicans did and begin to position themselves to grab the White House in 2008, giving immediate problems a lower priority.

If that is their choice, Republicans may want to try something radically different, which might not only produce policy successes that benefit the country, but incidentally pay them political dividends.

Republicans should assemble a bipartisan group of former members of Congress, such as Georgia Democrat Sam Nunn and Missouri Republican John Danforth. They would be commissioned to draft a bipartisan team to find solutions to common problems and challenges, such as a general framework for when American forces would be committed abroad and for what purposes. The team could also attack poverty in ways politicians have not, largely because each side is beholden to its “base,” which won’t let them stray far from past practices.

They can start by considering the ideas of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize winner, Muhammad Yunus. Yunus, a Bangladeshi banker, founded and heads Grameen Bank, which offers “micro-credit” to the very poor. Since 1983, when the bank was founded, more than half of its borrowers have climbed out of poverty.

In a recent Wall Street Journal column, Yunus expresses a philosophy that sounds Republican. He offers, “small loans packaged with practical business and social advice.” The Democratic Party philosophy is to give the poor more government aid. Republicans, when they think of the poor, believe they should emerge from poverty on their own initiative. With micro-credit, Yunus says the poor become self-sufficient and acquire dignity because they must repay the loans. He says nearly 99 percent of the loans are repaid. If Yunus can make it work in Bangladesh, it should work in America.

Republicans need to try something dramatic that will demonstrate success and communicate to the public whose interests they actually serve. If they do lose their majority next month, but learn the greater lesson that power should be a means to success, not an end in itself, they will not be the first party or person to learn more from failure than from success.