'Stupid Party' Seems to Favor Status Quo

The depleted House Republican caucus, a minority in the next Congress, convenes at 8 a.m. in the Capitol Friday on the brink of committing an act of supreme irrationality. The House members blame their leadership for tasting the bitter dregs of defeat. Yet, the consensus so far is that, in secret ballot, they will re-elect some or all of those leaders.

In private conversation, Republican members of Congress blame Majority Leader John Boehner and Majority Whip Roy Blunt in no small part for their midterm election debacle. Yet, either Boehner, Blunt or both are expected to be returned to their leadership posts Friday. For good reason, the GOP often is called "the stupid party."

While an unpopular Iraq war and an unpopular George W. Bush were primary causes of last Tuesday’s Republican rout, massive public disapproval of the Republican-controlled Congress significantly contributed. While abandoning conservative principles, the spendthrift House had become chained to special corporate interests represented by K Street lobbyists.

This malaise is embodied in the avuncular Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, whose consistent response to accusations of failed leadership has been 20-minute lectures to closed-door party conferences pleading for Republican unity. As expected, Hastert is leaving the leadership now that the party is in the minority. But his departure leaves the other leaders in place, with their colleagues reluctant to turn them out.

That reluctance is typified by Rep. Eric Cantor, a 43-year-old third-term congressman from Richmond, Va., who has been his party’s chief deputy whip for four years since being appointed by Blunt after only two years in Congress. His voting record is solidly conservative, and he belongs to the conservative Republican Study Committee (RSC). At the same time, Cantor is well regarded in all sectors of the party, which see him as the principled kind of rising politician that Republicans desperately need.

But Cantor is not seizing this post-election moment to seek an elected leadership position. On the contrary, he has been supporting Blunt for re-election as whip out of loyalty to his mentor and patron. Bright and able though he is, Cantor has drunk the Kool-Aid in viewing the Republican Party as a private club where personal loyalties must transcend all else.

Blunt, like Hastert, was hand-picked for leadership by Tom DeLay, the dominant Republican in Congress until his politically inspired indictment in Texas last year. When DeLay resigned as majority leader, the party’s lobbyist-connected establishment decision was to promote Blunt from whip to leader and make Cantor the whip. But with the feeling that some change was needed, Boehner defeated Blunt for the top job, and Blunt kept the second-ranking post. In fact, Boehner’s ties to K Street are even stronger than Blunt’s, and he seemed to lose interest in reform once he became majority leader.

Rep. Mike Pence, the current chairman of the RSC and a leader of reform, is an underdog candidate opposing Boehner. Rep. John Shadegg, Pence’s predecessor at the RSC who finished third in the race for leader last February, is running uphill against Blunt for whip on a reform platform. The conventional wisdom on the Hill is that, at best, only one of them can win because the Republicans would not dare elect two conservatives to the two top House leadership positions.

In fact, the voting records of Boehner and Blunt are nearly identical to Pence’s and Shadegg’s. The difference between them was demonstrated last Thursday when Blunt went to the Heritage Foundation to campaign for his retention as whip. He delivered a defense of earmarking, echoing the House appropriators’ claim that the elimination of earmarks would do "nothing but shift funding decisions from one side of Pennsylvania Ave. to the other."

That is the view that led Republicans to earmark a "bridge to nowhere" and hundreds of other projects in competitive districts, hoping it would save them on Election Day. The House has been a place where Rep. Don Young (a notorious Alaska porker) was setting national transportation policy, where the "Cardinals" on the Appropriations Committee established earmarking records, where the pharmaceutical industry had a pipeline to party policy and where even Speaker Hastert was making personal profits on an earmark. Maybe that’s what Republicans want to retain, even in the minority.