For the 112th Time: New Congress, Same Challenges

Paul Greenberg

1/7/2011 4:46:57 PM - Paul Greenberg

It's the way every new Congress begins -- with pomp amid familiar circumstances. Once again, the Outs have become the Ins, and the opposition now becomes the majority, at least in the People's House.

Change places, allemande right, do-si-do and off we go. Or maybe just march in place to much ado. If this change proves only ceremonial, the other party may soon enough get to call the next dance.

Or as John Boehner, the incoming speaker of the House, put in his first and very direct remarks to his colleagues, now augmented by 87 new Republican members:

"The American people have humbled us. They have refreshed our memories as to just how temporary the privilege to serve is. They have reminded us that everything here is on loan from them. That includes this gavel."

The new Speaker's fellow Republicans in the ever-changing House would do well to remember their leader's words. The other party forgot caution and, intoxicated by its sweeping victories at the polls over the past few years, must have thought the Millennium had arrived. It learned better last November.

After the congressional elections of 2006 and the coming of the messiah with the presidential landslide of 2008, Democrats may have believed all that guff about a Permanent Democratic Majority -- much as giddy Republicans believed Karl Rove had ushered in a permanent GOP majority a few years earlier. It turned to be just a fleeting moment in the ever-revolving fortunes of American politics.

The taste of victory can be so intoxicating it leads straight to defeat. The Greeks had a word for it: hubris. And it's as present in every new Congress as it was when Alcibiades played pied piper to Athenian democracy. All of which may explain why Nancy Pelosi is now the former majority leader of the House. (Oh, is there a sweeter phrase in the American political lexicon than Former Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi?)

It's so sad it's almost funny, but mainly it's cautionary to re-read all those assurances Democrats were handing out as ObamaCare was whisked through the last Congress in what amounted to a plain brown wrapper. With her usual foresight, the once and let's hope only once speaker of the House, the ever confident, ever obtuse Ms. Pelosi told doubters to relax, that the American people would love this bill once we found out what was in it.

But the more Americans find out about ObamaCare, the less we seem to like it. By now even the administration is backing away from it, or at least from the stealth regulation about end-of-life/death consultations that one of its bureaucrats tried to put over ever so quietly.

For now it is the Republicans who are riding high, which means they're heading for a fall if they think all they have to do is oppose an increasingly unpopular president. If it's the duty of the opposition party to oppose, and it is, it is only the beginning of duty. For a party to be successful, it must also propose.

The GOP's bright shining hour is only going to last a few minutes unless it can learn that it's not enough just to say No. A successful party must also offer alternatives, and, even more important, an alternative vision. Because that's what's lacking in the whirl of new budget rules and parliamentary fixes that has attended the opening of this new session: Vision.

In this, the centennial of Ronald Reagan's birth, you'd think Republicans would understand the importance not just of numbers but of dreams. Ronald Reagan did, and he always stayed in touch with the American dream. Whatever specific programs foreign and domestic he was associated with, it was his connection with the American mythos that re-invigorated the country. Wherever he went, like FDR, he exuded confidence, rebirth, A New Beginning. If all this new Congress is going to offer is a new set of numbers, it will be succeeded soon enough by a quite different 113th Congress.

What is it the Grand Old Party is for? It needs to tell the rest of us and, more important, show us. It needs to be not just against ObamaCare but show us how it could provide a system of universal health care that gives Americans more choice, not less; that depends on expanding competition, choice, innovation, supply and the free market in general rather than restricting all of the above.

The same principle applies across the board. Isn't it time to fix the problem of illegal immigration rather than just fight it, and so wind up doing nothing and pleasing nobody? Why must a system that leads to eventual, earned citizenship for millions of illegal immigrants and their children have to wait till the country's broken borders are finally fixed? Aren't Americans capable of doing more than one thing at a time? Of course we are -- but only if given leaders who can envision, not just gripe. Leaders who can pass laws and not just repeal them.

You name the challenges that our leaders have long ignored -- undisciplined spending, a tendency to temporize abroad rather than confront the most serious and increasingly nuclear-armed dangers, a short-changed and over-stressed military, free-trade agreements that have been allowed to languish forever ... and there are none that a people recalled to its dream cannot face -- and overcome.

Some of us remember the malaise that faced Ronald Reagan when he took the oath of office as president of the United States, a malaise we were told was permanent. That was the word from the Deep Thinkers who specialized in diagnosing a declinist America. Our leaders were supposed to manage America's decline rather than reverse it. One of those whited sepulchres (Clark Clifford by name) referred to the country's new president as an "amiable dunce." He got the amiable part right, but he couldn't have been more wrong about Ronald Reagan's political skills -- or determination to employ them even at the cost of a transient unpopularity.

Does the new Republican majority in the House have that kind of courage and, at least as important, that kind of vision? The John Boehners and Eric Cantors and Mitch McConnells of the party are known for being political mechanics, and their skills are not to be dismissed. But to put this country back to work, and back in touch with itself, that mythic self Ronald Reagan never failed to appeal to, will require more than political aptitude. It will require his kind of vision.