The Road Not Taken: Forfeiting a Majority

Hugh Hewitt
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Posted: Nov 08, 2006 4:48 PM
The Road Not Taken:  Forfeiting a Majority

The post-mortems are accumulating, but I think the obvious has to be stated: John McCain and his colleagues in the Gang of 14 cost the GOP its Senate majority while the conduct of a handful of corrupt House members gave that body's leadership the Democrats.

The first two paragraphs of my book Painting the Map Red --published in March of this year, read:

If you are a conservative Republican, as I am, you have a right to be worried. An overconfident and complacent Republican Party could be facing electoral disaster. Hillary Clinton, Howard Dean, and a host of others could be looming in our future and undoing all the good we've tried to do.

It is break the glass and pull the alarm time for the Republican Party. The elections looming in November 2006 are shaping up to be disastrous for the GOP as the elections of 1994 were for the Democrats. Most GOP insiders seem unaware of the party's political peril. Some are resigned to a major defeat as the price we have to pay for a decade of consistent gains, which, they think, couldn't have gone on forever.

As cooler heads sort through the returns, they will see not a Democratic wave but a long series of bitter fights most of which were lost by very thin margins, the sort of margin that could have been overcome had there been greater purpose and energy arrayed on the GOP's side. The country did not fundamentally change from 2004, but the Republicans had to defend very difficult terrain in very adverse circumstances. Step by step over the past two years the GOP painted themselves into a corner from which there was no escape. Congressional leadership time and time again took the easy way out and declared truces with Democrats over issues, which ought not to have been compromised. The easy way led to Tuesday's result.

The criminal activities of Duke Cunningham, Bob Ney and Mark Foley were anchors around every Republican neck, and the damaged leadership could not figure out that the only way to slip that weight was by staying in town and working around the clock on issue after issue. The long recesses and the unwillingness to confront the issues head on --remember the House's inexplicable refusal to condemn the New York Times by name in a resolution over the SWIFT program leak?-- conveyed a smugness about the majority which was rooted in redistricting's false assurance of invulnerability. Only on rare occasions would the Republicans set up the sort of debate that sharpened the contrast between the parties. In wartime, the public expects much more from its leaders than they received from the GOP.

In the Senate three turning points stand out.

On April 15, 2005 --less than three months after President Bush had begun a second term won in part because of his pledge to fight for sound judges-- Senator McCain appeared on Hardball and announced he would not support the "constitutional option" to end Democratic filibusters. Then, stunned by the furious reaction, the senator from Arizona cobbled together the Gang of 14 "compromise" that in fact destroyed the ability of the Republican Party to campaign on Democratic obstructionism while throwing many fine nominees under the bus. Now in the ruins of Tuesday there is an almost certain end to the slow but steady restoration of originalism to the bench. Had McCain not abandoned his party and then sabotaged its plans, there would have been an important debate and a crucial decision taken on how the Constitution operates. The result was the complete opposite. Yes, President Bush got his two nominees to SCOTUS through a 55-45 Senate, but the door is now closed, and the court still tilted left. A once-in-a-generation opportunity was lost.

A few months later there came a debate in the Senate over the Democrats' demand for a timetable for withdrawal for Iraq led to another half-measure: A Frist-Warner alternative that demanded quarterly reports on the war's progress, a move widely and correctly interpreted as a blow to the Administration’s Iraq policy. Fourteen Republicans voted against the Frist-Warner proposal --including Senator McCain-- and the press immediately understood that the half-measure was an early indicator of erosion in support for a policy of victory.

Then came the two leaks of national security secrets to the New York Times, and an utterly feckless response from both the Senate and the House. Not one hearing was held; not one subpoena delivered. A resolution condemning these deeply injurious actions passed the House but dared not name the New York Times. The Senate did not even vote on a non-binding resolution.

Nor did the Senate get around to confirming the president's authority to conduct warrantless surveillance of al Qaeda contacting its operatives in the United States. Weeks were taken up jamming the incoherent McCain-Kennedy immigration bill through the Judiciary Committee only to see it repudiated by the majority of Republicans, and the opportunity lost for a comprehensive bill that would have met the demand for security within a rational regularization of the illegal population already here.

And while the Senate twiddled away its days, crucial nominees to the federal appellate bench languished in the Judiciary Committee. The most important of them --Peter Keisler who remains nominated for the D.C. Circuit-- didn't even receive a vote because of indifference on the part of Chairman Specter.

(The National Review's Byron York wondered why the president didn't bring up the judges issue in the campaign until the last week, and then only in Montana. The reason was obvious: Senators DeWine and Chafee were struggling and any focus on the legacy of the Gang of 14 would doom DeWine's already dwindling chances while reminding the country of the retreat from principal in early '05.)

As summer became fall, the Administration and Senator Frist began a belated attempt to salvage the term. At exactly that moment Senators McCain and Graham threw down their still murky objections to the Administration’s proposals on the trial and treatment of terrorists. Precious days were lost as was momentum and clarity, the NSA program left unconfirmed (though still quite constitutional) and Keisler et al hung out to dry.

Throughout this two years the National Republican Senatorial Committee attempted to persuade an unpersuadable base that Lincoln Chafee was a Republican. For years Chafee has frustrated measure after measure, most recently the confirmation of John Bolton, even after Ahmadinejad threatened and Chavez insulted the United States from the UN stage. Chafee was a one-man wrecking crew on the NRSC finances, a drain of resources and energy, and a billboard for the idea that the Senate is first a club and only secondarily a body of legislators.

It is hard to conceive of how the past two years could have been managed worse on the Hill.

The presidential ambitions of three senators ended Tuesday night, though two of them will not face up to it.

The Republican Party sent them and their 52 colleagues to Washington D.C. to implement an agenda which could have been accomplished but that opportunity was frittered away.

The Republican Party raised the money and staffed the campaigns that had yielded a 55-45 seat majority, and the Republican Party expected the 55 to act like a majority. Confronted with obstruction, the Republicans first fretted and then caved on issue after issue. Had the 55 at least been seen to be trying --hard, and not in a senatorial kind of way-- Tuesday would have had a much different result. Independents, especially, might have seen why the majority mattered.

Will the GOP get back to a working majority again? Perhaps. And perhaps sooner than you think. The Democrats have at least six vulnerable senators running in 2008, while the situation looks pretty good for the GOP.

But the majority is not going to return unless the new minority leadership --however it is composed-- resolves to persuade the public, and to be firm in its convictions, not concerned for the praise of the Beltway-Manhattan media machine.