"Throw all the bums out!"
That's the message one incumbent Republican congressman received from a friendly constituent via e-mail recently. "I hope this doesn't happen to you," the constituent confided, forwarding an anti-Congress message to his representative. And then added, "... but, whatever."
It's an anti-Washington mood out there, in other words, fairly or unfairly. It used to be joked that voters' attitudes were generally: "Throw the bums out -- just not mine!" But these days, Congress is consistently not held in high esteem in public-opinion polls. And so even if you appreciate the virtues and record of your congressman, it's possible that you've just been too disappointed by politics and politicians in general to care all that much who gets swept up in the Tea Party tide.
The recipient of the "but whatever" e-mail gets it. And so, it would seem, does the Republican leadership, which is why they'd like you to log onto americaspeakingout.com.
The website's reason for being is explained as: "America deserves a Congress that respects the priorities of the people. Unfortunately, Washington hasn't been listening. Let's change that."
As Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., who has spearheaded the project, has explained it: "'This is an open community and a debate of ideas; you submit the idea, you debate the idea, you put it into your network and you'll continue to have that dialogue."
America Speaking Out comes at the perfect time. We all remember the town halls of last summer where, across the country, people let their congressman know exactly what they thought of the health-care push from Washington. And Republicans are hoping that voters will once again speak out about their unhappiness with the ruling party in Washington and interact with help form the agenda of and vote for the opposition in November.
The approach is born out of a certain amount of humility, too. In a Facebook posting, Sarah Palin, queen of the Tea Party if there is one, endorsed the effort, writing: "From the bailouts to the wasteful stimulus spending bill to the $2.5 trillion health care take over (sic), Washington stopped listening to us average everyday hardworking Americans ... so we're doing something about that."Another way of putting it might be: "We know you're mad, and you've been mad as Republicans as much as Democrats along the way. We get it and we want you to make sure we change things."
Is America Speaking Out a gimmick? Sure it is. But having been elected to the majority in the House before --during the so-called 1994 revolution -- House Republicans know that gimmicks without substance and follow-through are meaningless, even disastrous. Which is why Republicans aren't in the majority now. And if they screw it up again - Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, the presumptive Speaker of the House if Republicans do win the majority in November is pretty open and consistent about saying -- they'll deserve every loss that comes from it.
As one veteran of the 1994 revolution tells me: "Times are a'different than they were back in 1994 when Newt and Dick could descend from the mountaintop with the 10 tablets of the Contract, take out some ads in TV Guide and Reader's Digest, hold a mass event on the steps of the Capitol, and expect everyone to sign on."
He continues, "Trust in government is at a 50-year low, incumbent is a four-letter word, and the Republican Party remains in the dumps, so the approach to devising an agenda must take that new environment into consideration. Of course, it may unfold in an entirely uncharted direction!"
That's a gamble Republicans probably have to take. It's perhaps not that dramatic a gamble precisely because it suggests Republicans -- at least in the leadership -- are already doing a good bit of listening. They recognize the new, civically active environment. They also see that the Tea Party anger isn't simply a repulsion of Washington or government. Poll after poll suggests that the Tea Party movement reflects center-right, conservative values. These should be Republican voters.
Long beyond the novelty of their website, Americans will keep speaking out. And, increasingly, the people who are willing to make the sacrifices to show up as elected representatives on Capitol Hill have little to no interest in deluding themselves that Washington runs separate from them. Power may corrupt, but having seen too many in their caucus go down that road in the past, they know it's what losers do. It's a long road to November yet, but it's not a bad way to jump into the summer.