Settling in as majority
11/12/2002 12:00:00 AM - Bruce Bartlett
As Republicans and Democrats absorb the significance of last
week's election results, a few things are starting to become clear. For one
thing, Republicans are finally starting to settle into the idea that they
are the majority party in this country. They have not thought so since 1932.
I worked in the Senate in 1980, when Republicans won control
there for the first time in almost 30 years, and I remember clearly the
sense that this was all just temporary. In contrast to the Democrats, who
treated Republicans like dirt, the latter were very deferential. They didn't
treat Democrats with the same disdain, because in their hearts they knew it
The memories of 1946-48 and 1952-54, the last times that
Republicans held either house of Congress, were very much in their minds.
Although no one ever said so, I think most Republicans in the Senate thought
they would probably lose the majority in 1982. Consequently, they were
fearful of alienating the Democrats, whom, they thought, would soon be back
in power, lest they be punished as a consequence.
This sort of meek attitude toward one's oppressors is, sad to
say, not uncommon. People who are kidnapped, such as Patty Hearst, have been
known to fall in with their kidnappers. Republicans in Congress had somewhat
the same attitude. They were so used to being beaten and abused that they
thought this was the normal state of affairs. When they got the majority,
some reacted like a caged bird suddenly set free: they simply didn't know
what to do.
Some reacted by leaving. Congressman Bob Walker of Pennsylvania,
for example, was one of the most energetic Republicans opposing Democrats
while in the minority. But shortly after Republicans got the majority in the
House in 1994, he retired, as did several other longtime Republican
congressmen. I can only conclude that they really preferred being in the
minority, where they could lob bombs without taking any responsibility for
their actions. Once they actually had to do so, they bailed out.
I think that now, at last, Republicans in Congress may be ready
to come to grips with the consequences and responsibilities of being the
majority party -- the governing party -- in America. But they must first
shake off the tendency to think -- in the back of their minds -- that they
are, in effect, illegitimate and temporary holders of positions that, by
rights, really belong to Democrats.
This will be hard for some Republicans. I think that many of the
problems that developed after their 1994 takeover of the House resulted from
a fear that they would be out again in 1996. Their mentality, therefore, was
that we have to do it all today; there is no tomorrow. This led to an
over-reaching and pushing the envelope that proved to be self-defeating in
The main reason why the 2002 elections are important is
precisely because Republican gains were not supposed to happen. The party
holding the White House nearly always loses in mid-term elections, but does
better in presidential elections. Since Republicans gained this time, they
can realistically look forward to holding the House and Senate in 2004. This
means, for the first time in two generations, that Republicans can think
beyond the next election cycle. They can start to think long-term, about
building a base for policy changes that may not occur for two to three
years, rather than going for broke immediately.
Of course, another element in this change in thinking is that a
growing number of Republicans in Congress have only been there since they
have had control of at least one house. They are not intimidated by the
Democrats, as a whole generation of their predecessors were. When I went to
work in the House in 1976, Republicans were like animals that had been
severely beaten. They were shy, fearful, easily intimidated and extremely
deferential to their masters. That is no longer the case.
President Bush personifies a more self-assured, majority-minded
Republican attitude. His ability to convey this to other Republicans will be
key to his ability to pursue an agenda and change the political dynamics for
a generation. He has a historic opportunity to do so, since so many
Republicans believe that they owe their seats to him. Not unlike Newt
Gingrich after the Republican takeover of the House in 1994, Bush can, for a
time, lead Republicans in Congress anywhere, and they will follow.
Between now and January, Bush must think very, very carefully
about how to use the power he has been given. Fortunately, he is in a much
better position than Gingrich was to exercise it effectively. Having been
denied the traditional "honeymoon" that new presidents generally get, owing
to the unusual circumstances of his election, he has now been given that
honeymoon back again. How he uses this window of opportunity will tell us
much about the future of the Republican Party.