It’s long been said that there are two kinds of men who seek the presidency: Those who want to be someone, and those who want to do something. As we’ve seen, the same is true when it comes to the Congress.
Recently, it seems that there have been too many of the former among congressional Republicans – and not enough of the latter. Accordingly, the party was chastised by the voters last Tuesday night, when the American people sent Republicans packing. Electoral casualties included good men like Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and Jim Talent of Missouri, whose status as incumbents in swing states meant that they were forced to take the punishment that more justly should have been meted out to others.
Yet the damage needn’t be lasting, and it won’t be – that is, as long as Republicans learn the right lessons from their defeat. Everyone knows the voters spoke loudly on Election Day; what’s important is to understand what they actually said.
First, it’s time for Republicans to worry less about enjoying the perquisites of political power, and more about what to do with political power when they have it. Obviously, being in the minority, especially in the House of Representatives, concentrates the mind wonderfully. Fair enough. That’s what happens when voters decide that some congressional Republicans – most notably Duke Cunningham, Bob Ney and Mark Foley – are seeking and using their jobs less to serve the country than to benefit themselves, financially and otherwise. Add to that a House leadership whose paramount concern appears to be protecting itself, its congressional majority, and all the trappings of power, and there’s a recipe for electoral disaster.
Dishonest, disgusting or cowardly behavior is galling to the electorate at any time, but never more than when the country is at war. Certainly, contrary to what lefties are claiming, the election wasn’t a referendum on our presence in Iraq. Voters aren’t angry that the United States is trying to secure Iraq and establish a foothold for democracy in the Middle East. Instead, they’re frustrated at a war that, it seems, is being fought with half measures, little discernible forward progress, and an Administration that appears hesitant about presenting a thorough, sure-footed case for our continued presence there or a clear plan for victory.
The parallels with domestic issues are eerie. Voters didn’t turn on the Republicans because of their policies, but because of their failure to execute them competently, especially in the Senate. Amazingly, an exit poll found that more voters believed that Republicans, rather than Democrats, were the party of “big government.” Most Democratic candidates ran in the mold of Missouri’s Claire McCaskill, who emphasized her background as a prosecutor, the importance of fiscal responsibility, and her support for the military. Everywhere that property rights initiatives were on the ballot, they prevailed. Gay marriage bans passed in seven of the eight states where they were on the ballot. And California’s Prop. 87 – taxing oil companies to fund “alternative energy” research – failed resoundingly. Instead of constituting a repudiation of conservative principles, the election results were an expression of frustration with Republicans’ seeming inability either to live up to or enact them.
Second, it’s time for Republicans to let the sunshine – and the base – back in. For far too long, too many Republican politicians have treated the conservative base like Ross Perot’s proverbial crazy aunt in the attic. Certainly, there’s no place in either party for unreasoned extremism. But there’s likewise no justification for Republican officials’ inexplicable tendency to behave as though good, reasonable conservatives are either too unsophisticated to be taken seriously, too foolish to understand when the issues most important to them are being ignored, or too slavishly devoted to the GOP to withhold their votes when politicians haven’t gotten the job done.
In short, congressional Republicans need to begin treating the base less like a rampaging beast to be placated, and more like a trusted friend to be consulted. Too often, party decision-making has a cliquish element reminiscent of an eighth grade cheerleading squad. Would it really hurt anyone for the politicians to turn to the people who fund, electioneer and vote for them most loyally and ask, “What do you think?”? Seeking input about the candidates for the party’s new leaders would be a great way to start the conversation. Communication and transparency are key – and given the advent of talk radio and the blogosphere, easily accomplished. It hasn’t been happening, and it’s time for it to start.
There’s no doubt that challenges come with defeat – but there are also new opportunities. It’s time for congressional Republicans to close the book on Election Night ’06 and resolve that, by November of 2008, theirs will once again be the party that Americans trust with their pocketbooks, their values – and, in an era of Islamofascist terrorism, with their lives.