Leadership. Leadership has been the Republican Party’s buzzword since the attacks of September 11, 2001. Fighting a war on Islamofascism required stouthearted leadership, Republicans said. Bringing democracy to the Middle East was a task for a determined leadership. Restoring traditional morality and the rule of law could only be accomplished by true leadership.
The vaunted Republican Congress turned out to be all hat, no cattle, to paraphrase President Bush. The Republicans can boast few accomplishments during their four-year control of Congress: tax cuts, the Patriot Act, the Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act, the confirmation of Supreme Court Justices Samuel Alito and John Roberts. Only the Alito and Roberts confirmations occurred during the last two years.
Meanwhile, the list of Republican failures is stunning: rejection of the anti-flag-burning amendment, rejection of the amendment to uphold traditional marriage, rejection of a hard-headed measure to assure all of President Bush’s judicial nominees an up-or-down vote, passage of a fetal stem cell research bill, refusal to pass a social security fix, dithering on the issue of illegal immigration, out-of-control spending — all within the last two years.
This was not leadership. This was abdication. And blaming Democrats for obstructionism simply would not fly when Republicans held strong majorities in the Senate and House of Representatives. Yes, Democrats acted wretchedly, hamstringing our soldiers in the field, undermining our anti-terrorism efforts at home, standing tall for the immoral minority. But that is precisely why Americans had voted Republican in the first place: They wanted a responsible party in power.
What they got was a party so in love with its own power that it abdicated its principles. Senator John McCain (R.-Ariz.), always willing to buckle under for some good press from the liberal establishment, led his bipartisan "Gang of 14" in preventing qualified judicial nominees from receiving floor votes, stumped for an across-the-board ban on torture of terrorists and repeatedly undercut the president’s efforts with regard to the war in Iraq. Senator Arlen Specter (R.-Penn.) pressed the Bush administration on its wiretapping program and threatened to stymie conservative judges. Senator Chuck Hagel (R.-Neb.) railed constantly against the war in Iraq. The House leadership failed to confront the Mark Foley issue, destroying their own credibility on moral issues. And both the Senate and the House refused to reign in their runaway spending.
Many in the media perceive the Democratic wave of 2006 as a referendum on President Bush and, in particular, his handling of the war in Iraq. On the contrary: The Republican collapse was due largely to the Republican Party’s failure to back President Bush. Republicans, afraid of President Bush’s plummeting poll numbers in the aftermath of election 2004, criticized the war in Iraq unmercifully. "Things aren’t getting better; they’re getting worse. The White House is completely disconnected from reality," Senator Hagel stated in June 2005. "It’s like they’re just making it up as they go along. The reality is, we’re losing in Iraq." His sentiments were echoed by Republican members in both houses of Congress. Even Republicans who supported the war in Iraq criticized President Bush’s handling of it.
It is not quite that easy to dissociate from a president of your own party. Even if you oppose the leader of your party rather than allying with him, you will be forced by the electorate to stand with him. The Republican Congress constantly undermined President Bush’s efforts on issue after issue, and Bush’s approval ratings plummeted as he lost the support of his own party — but when it came time to vote, voters still saw the "R" next to Republican candidates’ names. Voters recognize that leadership matters, even if the Republican Party didn’t.
What happens next? A return to conservatism for the new Republican minority — a minority that is only a minority because it abandoned conservatism to begin with. A revival for President Bush, despite predictions to the contrary — for the first time in a long time, he can credibly target Democrats for inaction and radicalism. Don’t expect Congress to remain Democratic for long. Americans put the Republican Party in the repair shop. When it emerges, it will be stronger for its foray into minority status.
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