Settling in as majority

Posted: Nov 12, 2002 12:00 AM
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 wouldn't last. 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 certain respects. 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.