Election Aftermath

Mark Tapscott sums things up pretty nicely: “When Republicans worry more about staying in government than about limiting government, they get thrown out of government.”

I disagree, however, with his long range forecast:

What happens in the GOP in the next 90 days will determine whether the party ever again has a realistic chance of regaining majority status in Congress and the White House. If there is not a top-to-bottom housecleaning in the congressional leadership and the national and state party structures, nothing much will change.

Frankly, I doubt that the GOP can change enough to avoid a long slide into a political oblivion not unlike that suffered by the Whigs for their inability to confront the issue of slavery.

The most fervent ideologues, those of us who cared about the election during the spring and summer and actually care who the minority leader might be next session, always overreact to elections. When our side wins, it’s a sweeping mandate for every dot and tittle of our platform. When we lose, it’s because we failed to hew to our core principles and, because politicians are politicians, we are on a slippery slope to Hell in a handcart.

Neither reaction is reasonable. The voters threw the bums out Tuesday for a variety of reasons, some rational, some otherwise. The bottom line, though, is in Tapscott’s summation. The Republican Congressional leadership cared more about holding on to power than leading the country in the direction they promised two years earlier.

All the major scandals stemmed from that. Delay, Abramoff, and the K-Street Project were all about maximizing the levers of power to maintain it. Ditto the shameful cover-up of the Foley scandal. What’s more important, protecting underage congressional employees from a sleazy predator or keeping an incumbent in a safe seat? Apparently, Hastert and Friends thought the latter. Even the debate on the war in Iraq and the conduct of the fight against Islamist terrorists, while legitimately a point of ideological contention with the Democrats, seemed to hinge more on looking ahead to November 7 than avoiding another September 11. Rightfully, it cost them.

A change in the leadership is already underway. Hastert is gone. So is Deborah Pryce, the chair of the House Republican Conference. My guess is that Boehner, Blunt, and others will feel the ax soon.

Hugh Hewitt and N.Z. Bear think they should slow down and consult the grassroots. Really, though, hardly anyone outside the House knows John Shadegg or Mike Pence or any of the other candidates. So, while I hope the Congressional Republicans heed the blogosphere on the kind of leader we want, it’s up to them to pick the man they will work with on a daily basis for the next two years.

President Bush, too, is taking his defeat like a man, owning up to his own responsibility in Tuesday’s rebuke. He’s acceded to the bipartisan demand to let Don Rumsfeld go, simultaneously removing a lightning rod and signaling his willingness to listen. That’s good.

The cost to the party will be steep. With the right candidates, they can retain the White House and regain the Senate in 2008. They’re unlikely to be able to recoup their losses in the House that soon. In the meantime, conservative appointments to the Supreme Court and other key posts are unlikely.

The good news is that it’s easier to be principled in opposition than in power. Come January, the Republican leadership will suddenly remember that they are in favor of smaller government and fiscal discipline. And ethics.

Further, we always write off losing parties. They invariably come back. Not all that long ago, the GOP had a “lock” on the Electoral College that all but precluded the election of a Democratic president. That was before Bill Clinton picked the lock, with the help of demographic shifts in places like California. In recent years, it looked like the Republicans had a strangehold on the House of Representatives, too, with their ingenious gerrymandering. Not so much, it turns out.

As President Bush noted yesterday, the Democrats now share responsibility for governance. If they exercise that power well, they’ll hold onto it for a while. If they don’t, the Republicans will be poised to take it from them. That’s how it’s always been.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2006, Congress, , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Dave Schuler says:

    The voters threw the bums out

    Would that that had happened! But it didn’t: nearly all incumbents were re-elected. A mere handful (and those had mostly been crippled by scandal, gaffes, stridency, or all three) of incumbents were replaced. Even that wouldn’t have happened but for a general unease caused by Iraq, less money left in the pocket at the end of the week, and a relentless advertising campaign.

    Here in Illinois in particular it was an all-incumbent election. How else to explain electing Todd Stroger Cook County Board President (he’s the son of the prior president)? Nearly everyone agrees he’s an amiable dunce.

  2. Julian says:

    “The good news is that it’s easier to be principled in opposition than in power.”

    Excellent summation, James. A very well written article. Thank you.

  3. Patrick McGuire says:

    My hope is that in the next year a third party will emerge that truly represents the conservative values of Americans. But then, what do I know, I lost a bet on the last elections.

  4. James Joyner says:

    Patrick: A slightly chastened, reformed Republican Party is all you can hope for in that regard. An ideological fringe party might be satisfying but it’s unelectable.

  5. James Joyner says:

    Dave: True ’nuff. The nature of the beast is that most people hate Congress but love THEIR Congressman.

    Indeed, the whuppin’ constituted six percent of the Senate and about the same in the House.

  6. Yes I agree with you, this ellection brought more movement into politics. I think the resignation of Rumsfeld is the first sign for a big change in the current administration.

    Thank you for sharing this story with me !

  7. Patrick McGuire says:

    James: I disagree on two points. First, there is ALWAYS hope. And second, there is evidence that voters were looking for alternatives to either the Democrats or Republicans in the recent elections. Here in Arkansas, the Green Party came out from left field to take 4% of the votes and the Libertarians did even better in Montana. If a party, such as the America First Party, were to become better known amongst the electorate, I can even see conservatives from both the main parties moving there.

    Just don’t ask me to bet money on it.

  8. There are two ways you can win elections. One is tactical where you figure out the opposition weaknesses, your strengths, take calculated positions to incrementally advance your cause. The other is strategic where you stake out a well thought on position, draw sharp contrasts with the opposition and defend your position.

    Tactics in politics can move you a few seats. 2002 was a tactical election that worked well for the GOP. But to take back the senate and house in 2008, you need to take a strategic position that will resonate with the base and the middle.

    Both parties have opportunities to do this. I don’t think the democrats have done this in 2006 and I know the republicans have lost their way on the strategy front. For the republicans, they need to be able to look voters in the eye and be able to answer honestly and effectively two tough questions.

    “What would be different if the republicans were back in the majority?”

    “Why didn’t the republicans do that when they were in the majority?”

    Give contract with America like answers to the first question and show why it would be different next time and the republicans can sweep the boards in 2008. Fail to give a good enough answer to either question and you are back to incremental gains based on political tactics with all the power of the incumbency blocking you.

  9. Can the Republicans Recapture the Spirit of ’94?…

    The battle for leadership of the new minority party in Congress reflects the soul-searching going on…

  10. KC says:

    “When Republicans worry more about staying in government than about limiting government, they get thrown out of government.”

    Grabbing and holding on to power(and money) at the expense of anyone not part of their “club” has been the republicans’ MO since before the inception of the K-Street project. Wedge issues, telephone smear campaigns, voter harassment and intimidation, etc.

    Here is some more depressing proof.

    http://www.philly.com/mld/philly/news/15966909.htm

    Wow. Absolutely pathetic. Go ahead and tell me that the Dems do this kind of stuff too, and then post proof. Preferably not the old corrupt Chicago/Illinois Democrats story.

  11. Jon Parker says:

    I’m a very liberal Democrat, and really liked this post. Ultimately, I think those of us who follow politics closely often forget that 90% of the people really don’t have a firm ideology — they want practical solutions to the problems facing them personally and the nation as a whole.

    Despite the exit polling, I think the moment when the GOP lost the majority of the electorate was Katrina, at least on an emotional level. Most of those who believe in limited government place limits on it — no one but the hard core libertarians actually think that the highway system should be privatized. The electorate saw a botched response to a huge problem — one well within what most people consider federal jurisdiction.

    Ideology is an underlying basis for decision making, not an end in itself. Most people neither want radical leftism nor hard-core conservatism — they want solutions to their problems. Once both parties figure this out, the country will be well on its way to being back on track. I think the Democrats are a bit ahead right now, but I believe in strong opposition parties. Lopsided government is bad for everyone.