September 13, 2010

The Fleeting Nature of Congressional Majorities

by Hal Gershowitz

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It is less than two months to the midterm Congressional elections and for the Republicans all current signs point to something between significant successes at worst, and taking control of Congress if everything breaks their way.  To be sure, the GOP shouldn’t count the elephants stampeding toward the two Chambers until the voters render their verdict.  At this time, Republican leaders are split as to what to do between now and election day.  Some favor a strategy of saying as little as possible so as not to make any gaffe, which slows the momentum flowing their way or the alternative of putting forth a comprehensive plan of action.

It is not our purpose to offer advice on which short-term political strategy they should adopt.  However, Republicans should be mindful that even major electoral shifts can be very short lived if they are not followed by positive action.  Currently, the American people, in poll after poll, have revealed an almost loathsome view of both parties, who they hold, to paraphrase the words of the late Speaker John McCormick “in minimum high regard.”  Perhaps Republicans can coast to victory simply by not being Democrats, although they should keep in mind their electoral success in 1994 when they put forward the now famous “Contract With America.”  In that election, after several decades of being a semi-permanent minority party, they didn’t content themselves with offering candidates viewed as “Democrat light.”  Instead, they put forward a comprehensive alternative set of ideas so as to present to the voters a coherent alternative plan of action for the country.  But once they achieved electoral success and the country finally had a working two party system, the voting public since 1994 has shown a propensity to fire either party if it fails to deliver results.

Of course, all political junkies, we among them, love the “sport” of following pre-election polls and speculating on various possible outcomes.  It is the political equivalent of reading the sports page.  But just as with baseball managers and football coaches, “losing seasons” end with the managers or coaches (or in this case, the party) being given the heave-ho.

Less than two years ago, President Obama came into office riding a wave of popularity.  He ran a smart campaign and he promised to be an inclusive leader and end the partisan rancor, which had long befouled the American political air.  Now his party faces the possibility of an historic Congressional drubbing.  What happened?  Many Republicans, energized by the Tea Party movement, will attribute the change in the political winds solely to public opposition to the health care legislation and other programs that the President and Congress pushed from the liberal left agenda, and no doubt that part of the story is true, as is the public’s new found attention to deficit spending and the nation’s debt load.  We would suggest, however, another overarching reason: the voters demand for political accountability.

The American public didn’t suddenly wake up and become fearful of debt and deficit spending, even though it has reached unprecedented levels.  The Democrats are in trouble because the voters gave them the power to govern and solve the problem most important to us:  . . . loss of jobs.  Unemployment was above 7 percent in January 2009 and it is pushing 10 percent now.  The trillion-dollar stimulus program has yielded no discernable results.  Had it performed as Mr. Obama told us again and again that it would, and put several million people back to work, the concern about deficit and debt would have receded into the background as it has many times before.  Historically, warnings about deficit spending are not the centerpiece of successful political campaigns.  This year, however, joblessness is worse and the spotlight shines bright on the enormous wasteful spending, as well as the Administration’s decision to put its questionable legislative agenda ahead of getting the economy back on track.  In short, the Democrats are being held accountable to their promises.  They want to keep blaming George W. Bush, but that mantra has worn thin.  The Great Recession and the jobless recovery are now their problem.

That, however, is no reason for the Republicans to rejoice.  The voters punished them in 2006 and 2008 when, instead of focusing like a laser on the economy or governing on the conservative principles on which they regularly campaign, they lost their way.  Earmarks, ethical breaches, excessive spending, special privileges, and the revolving door between public office and lobbying were as bad under their majority as when the Democrats had the keys to the kingdom.

Simply put, whether or not the GOP reprises the 2010 equivalent of Mr. Gingrich’s Contract With America prior to election day, they had better put a coherent program in place by the time Congress convenes in January, if they are to have a major role in governing.  As Jeremy Lott stated in his August 20 article in Real Clear Politics “while [the Contract] put forward a positive agenda for Republicans, it was at least as much about highlighting and capitalizing on Democratic scandal.  The contrast was meant to declare that the current state of things was rotten, but would change if only voters showed Democrats the door.”

Earlier this year, voters in New Jersey and Virginia did just that.  Newly elected New Jersey Governor Chris Christie followed up his electoral win by making numerous reforms and sticking to his promises.  He slashed spending and balanced the state’s budget without raising taxes.  A coherent program cannot only get you elected; it becomes an understandable and reasonable metric to measure leadership.

Later this month, some of the new generation of Republican leaders, including Congressman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, will unveil a thoughtful program in a book called “Roadmap for America’s Future.”  It is designed to offer ideas and goals on a wide variety of the problems which bedevil our nation including lack of job creation, the debt burden, health and retirement security, Medicare and social security solvency, and tax simplification and reform.  Whether or not Republicans take over one or more chambers of the Congress, and whether it is Mr. Ryan’s program or a variant thereof, presenting new ideas . . .even in the face of presidential vetoes . . . will demonstrate their seriousness to find solutions to what have been intractable problems and demonstrate that they are prepared to do more than just say “no.”

One other factor Republicans should keep in mind.  The notion of pinning a scarlet letter on any member of their own caucus for voting his or her conscience on one or more social issues or on a confirmation vote is a recipe for disaster.  Not only do intraparty divisions widen, demanding litmus tests on every issue conveys an impression of small-minded ideological purity.  Case in point: Senator Lindsay Graham’s vote to confirm Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court (even though, as he said, she wouldn’t have been his choice for nominee) because he concluded that she was qualified, was met by threats to punish him at the polls when he stands for reelection.  Never mind his record of achievements, holier-than-thou opponents seem to be asking “what have you done for us since breakfast.”  No party can afford to jettison one of its valued members, let alone one of its rising stars over a single issue.

Advancing conservative solutions in a nation where the opposition promises free lunches and increased government benefits with the tab pushed over to future generations is not an easy task.  But in 2010, the convergence of the nation’s many problems onto the national agenda would seem to be the right time to present solutions that the academic elitists and the liberal media eschew.  Clearly the evidence is front and center that the Democrats didn’t get the job done and that their programs have been a colossal failure.

Rahm Emanuel’s famous prescription for consolidating power, “never waste a crisis” has clearly aroused the wrath of the voters who have watched the Democrats embrace of his dictum burden the nation, dampen the hopes of millions and put the nation in outrageous and, perhaps, perpetual hock.  The nation seems clearly ready for serious reform, wise stewardship of the national fisc and leadership determined to end a crisis…not manipulate it. Time will soon tell if the Republicans are up to the task.

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4 responses to “The Fleeting Nature of Congressional Majorities”

  1. Dan Newell says:

    Nice piece. How did Christie do it in New Jersey while Arnold S. couldn’t swing the broken legislature to do something similar in CA? Is Dem Tim Kaine a good example during his governance in VA?

  2. Judy Allen says:

    Spot on. CA still doesn’t have a balanced budget………they refuse to cut any of the free lunches, stop spending and continue to add regulations that run business out of the State.

  3. peter solomon says:

    Excellent analysis. However, keep in mind that Mitch McConnell and John Boehner were both present during the debacle of the Bush years. Where were they then when it came to a balanced budget and sensible policy?

  4. irwin yablans says:

    Many citizens would welcome an agenda put forward by republicans that offers speedier solutions to the maze of difficulties still facing the nation.
    Yes, I ,for one still blame the Bush years for the misery we are enduring and it is,yet,another example of american impatience and our desire for instant gratification that expects the wrongs of eight years to be corrected in 20 months. Hopefully,some really bright men will emerge in the GOP to lead with new thinking but for now,it looks like the same old political manouvering that leaves the party to be represented by caricatures like
    Beck,Limbaugh,and Palin.
    By the way,we still have an auto industry and the Banks seeem to be flourishing despite Obama. The job situation will improve sooner than some think and certainly sooner than some republicans would like.

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