The dysfunctional Republicans

Posted: Apr 27, 2005 12:00 AM

Let's say you're a leader of a political party. Your party has just won 55 out of 100 seats in the Senate; you have maintained solid control of the House; and your candidate for president has just been re-elected by a margin of three million votes. Now you're faced with crucial political issues you campaigned upon. Do you: a) go for it, or b) compromise?

 If you're the Republican Party, you compromise. Republicans are so used to being a minority party -- or at least a party in control of single branches of government at a time -- that they have no idea how to get things done in this new political environment. What's clear to every semi-literate observer of politics -- the basic principle that when you have power, you ram your agenda through -- remains murky for the Republican leadership.

 Senate Republicans are stalled on Social Security personal accounts. Senate Republicans are stalled on the John Bolton United Nations ambassador nomination. And Senate Republicans are stalled in foiling the Democrats' desperation filibuster of popular textualist judges who will surely win approval in a full Senate vote.

 Republicans own 55 seats in the Senate, a solid majority in the House and the presidency. What in the world is going on? President Bush vowed after his three million vote electoral victory margin to spend his political capital. Yet his political capital drains slowly away, day by day -- his latest approval ratings are below 50 percent. Bush's political capital is not draining away because he's pushing unpopular measures; it's draining away because he isn't doing anything . Approval ratings for the Senate reflect similar disenchantment with inaction. The American people elected President Bush, a Republican Senate and a Republican House in order to see a certain agenda pursued. Yet Republicans, afraid to alienate portions of the voting public they have already captured, dillydally.

 It's easy to blame Republican inaction on the obvious: grandstanding by a few key "maverick" Republican senators seeking airtime and press raves. Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), a member of the Senate Finance Committee, has vowed to shoot down any Social Security proposal that includes personal accounts. Because the Committee is split 11-9 in favor of Republicans, Snowe's defection could spell the end of President Bush's Social Security proposal.
At the same time, Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio), as well as Sens. Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I.) and Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), seem poised to crater Bolton's confirmation.

 Meanwhile, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has pledged to vote against any effort on the part of Senate Republicans to end Democratic filibusters of President Bush's judicial nominees. Chafee and Snowe will likely join McCain in his ploy for publicity, which leaves Republicans with the requisite bare majority, 52-48, as long as no other Republicans defect. But if the current Republican trend of bucking the White House continues, even this measure -- perhaps the measure most important for Republicans in maintaining the support of their base -- could go down to a humiliating defeat.

 But even these obstacles could be overcome by a show of power from Republican leadership. Such a show of force probably won't occur any time soon. Instead of pressuring Republican senators to step back in line, the White House has pursued a patty-cake policy of compromise and appeasement. President Bush had an opportunity early after the election to whip Republican "mavericks" back into line when Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) threatened his judicial nominees. Yet instead of calling for Specter's ouster as the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, President Bush remained largely silent. Specter is still chair of the committee.

 Compromises between single senators and an incumbent president are known in psychological parlance as "enabling." Republican weakness enables their opponents. By allowing dissention to spread within the Republican Party, the White House and the Senate Republican leadership, endanger all the gains that have been made over the last decade.

 Meanwhile, the Democrats, in flux just a few months ago, sit back and chuckle. They're standing fast against Bolton and against Social Security personal accounts, where they can exploit Republican divisions. And they're offering the oh-so-tempting carrot of compromise to a wobbly Republican Senate with regard to judicial filibusters, stating that they will allow a few Bush nominees to reach a floor vote if Republicans promise not to end the practice of judicial filibustering. You can almost hear the drool hit the floor as Sen. Bill Frist looks at Sen. Harry Reid's compromise offer and then glances uneasily over at the Hole-in-the-Republican-Senate-Gang, led by Snowe, Chafee and McCain.

 Republicans have been down so long that they don't even know when they're up. They'd better recognize their strength and start using it quickly or they'll be down again before they know it.