Who will lead the minority to the majority?

Tim Chapman

11/16/2006 12:01:52 AM - Tim Chapman

On Friday morning House Republicans will hold a meeting to elect leaders who will lead them in the minority for the first time since 1994. The House leadership elections have become ground zero for an intra-party debate about the future of the Republican Party and the broader conservative movement.

Many outside groups, conservative blogs and grassroots conservatives are agitating for a return to bedrock conservative principles. The call for a back-to-basics approach has often been coupled with a call for fresh faces in GOP leadership. Among the members vying for leadership positions there are indeed some fresh faces as well as some old hands. But all have one thing in common: They are echoing outside calls for a return to the fundamentals.

The top two posts in the House GOP caucus have attracted five candidates. Current Majority Leader John Boehner wants to continue to lead his party as Minority Leader. He is challenged for that spot by an up-and-coming conservative, Republican Study Committee Chairman Mike Pence. Texas Representative Joe Barton has also joined the race for leader as a dark horse candidate.

According to Hill sources, the contest for Minority Whip is very close. Current Majority Whip Roy Blunt is being pushed to the brink by former RSC Chairman John Shadegg. The Blunt-Shadegg race is in many ways a rematch of the Majority Leader race 10 months ago in which Shadegg ultimately bowed out but wounded Blunt sufficiently to allow Boehner to assume leadership.

The calls for fresh faces from the outside have translated into support for Pence and Shadegg, who have both been vocal critics of the House GOP leadership when it comes to issues such as runaway federal spending.

In an op-ed in The Hill newspaper, Pence wrote that “in recent years, to the chagrin of millions of Republicans, our majority also voted to expand the federal government’s role in education by nearly 100 percent and created the largest new entitlement in 40 years. We also pursued domestic spending policies that created record deficits, national debt and earmark spending that has embarrassed us and caused many Americans to question our commitment to fiscal responsibility.”

In much the same way, Shadegg is reminding his colleagues about the failure of his party on matters of conservative principle. “Republicans came to Washington as reformers,” wrote Shadegg in the same publication. “We reformed welfare, balanced the federal budget, and reduced tax rates. We have much to be proud of. However, somewhere along the way, we lost our way.”

But it is not just the fresh-faced reformers who are talking about returning the Party of Reagan to its roots. Indeed, Blunt, who many on the outside have argued against because of his involvement with Republican betrayals like the Medicare Prescription Drug Act of 2003, is talking the talk as well. In a speech at The Heritage Foundation this week, Blunt agreed that the Republican Party had wandered off the reservation. “We’ve often become defenders rather than challengers of business as usual,” Blunt told conservatives. “We’ve failed to create a culture of less but better government.”

Blunt noted the vast expansion of the federal government after passage of the No Child Left Behind bill and admitted his complicity. “I voted for that bill,” said Blunt, “when I did that, I violated one of my basic political beliefs that elementary and secondary education should be the responsibility of moms and dads and local school districts.”

Unlike Blunt, Boehner does not have as long a history in GOP leadership to defend. But he too has acknowledged the mess his party is in. “Our voters stopped thinking of us as the party of principle because we lost our commitment to and confidence in our core principles,” wrote Boehner in a letter to colleagues this week. “Somehow, we grew to accept the notion that we were entitled to continued majority control, instead of having to constantly earn it.”

So when Republican members of the House of Representatives gather in the old Cannon House Office building on Friday, they will be presented with a spate of candidates who largely agree on the direction in which the Party needs to head. But the deciding factor will be this: Does the Republican conference think that a fresh start is needed? And if so, do they think that means new leaders are needed as well?

If you ask the conservative challengers, their answer is simple: A fresh start requires fresh faces.

Speaking to a group of supporters this week, Mike Pence explained that he is not running because he thinks any of the current leadership failed in the 109th Congress. Pence said Boehner took on a “thankless task” in the 109th. But he made clear that he was running “not because I think I am a better man than either John Boehner or Joe Barton, but … because I believe I might just be the best man for the job. … To restore confidence in our commitment to those Reagan ideals we would do well to bring new faces and new voices to bear on the challenges we will face in the 110th Congress.”