Something rare and wonderful in politics has happened. It has very little to do with the GOP takeover of the House of Representatives, although that is certainly a side benefit. What is truly remarkable is the massive amount of new blood that has been transfused into the Republican Party as a result of their victory in this election. It makes for a delicious feeling of uncertainty and unpredictability. Anything is going to be possible over the next two years, including a GOP implosion, a Democratic Party explosion, or a presidential meltdown.
About a third of the GOP caucus that is sworn in on January 3, 2011, will never have served in Congress previously. If they organize and stay together, they could affect everything from the battle to repeal health care reform to who becomes speaker of the House. Almost all of them are as conservative as any group of first-termers who have ever been elected. The question being asked by both tea party folk and the GOP establishment is: how wedded to “principle” are the newcomers?
Similar questions were being asked by Democrats in 1974 when the Watergate class of liberal congressmen upended the Democratic establishment and forever after skewed the party to the far left. There were 72 new congressmen in that class (the Democrats gained 49 seats) and they quickly organized themselves into a powerful caucus that changed the committee and seniority system, thus altering the way the Congress did business. Their example may be followed by this new group of freshly minted conservative House members who come to Washington as a result of the GOP tidal wave.
Not all of them have bubbled up from the tea party movement, but most are in sync with its goals: fiscal responsibility and a return to some semblance of prudent government. But what does that mean? We are in a nightmarish economy with slow growth, continuing job losses, and the specter of inflation in the background due to the irresponsible policies of the Federal Reserve. We are also faced with depressing budget deficits and a truly frightening national debt.
Is there no role for government at all in fixing this mess? If there is, the Republicans are not going to be able to accomplish much on their own. They will need to work with the Democrats and the president in order to get something done about the economy and the budget. Spending and tax cuts will have to be negotiated to have any chance of being signed by the president and put into effect. Otherwise, the GOP will simply be posturing, and nothing at all will be accomplished.
But the Republicans have already indicated that there will be no compromise with the Democrats, and the newcomers are completely in tune with that promise. In fact, if a move is made by establishment Republicans to work with the opposition, there is the probability that the tea party caucus will possess the solidarity to shoot down any attempt to reach a bipartisan deal on the budget and taxes with the Democrats. This will deny President Obama and his party any semblance of “victory,” but it will also prevent the GOP from achieving anything they can take back home with them to show their constituents how much they care about their suffering in this miserable economy.
Some may believe this is not important. If so, they are out of touch with the vast majority of the American people. And ignoring voters while doing exactly the opposite of what they desire sounds suspiciously like the very same strategy employed by the Democrats recently. The results for the GOP in 2012 are likely to mirror what happened to the Democrats in 2010.
When it comes to compromising with the opposition or “sticking with principles,” it’s no contest. A Bloomberg poll had it 80-16 for compromise, while a CBS/New York Times poll showed 69-22 in favor of working with the opposition to get something done. With numbers like that, it would seem that the GOP is willing to commit political suicide with their “no compromise” stand, playing right into the hands of President Obama. The president will no doubt make what are reasonable sounding accommodations with the Republicans, knowing full well he can do so safely since they will be rejected and the GOP will get the lion’s share of the blame if nothing gets accomplished.
Polls show that the American people want the deficit brought under control. But dig a little deeper by asking a follow-up question about what programs should be cut and you immediately discover that the people have attached some interesting riders to the notion of cutting the deficit.
Just 31% want cuts in education and health care in the Bloomberg poll. And in a Pew survey, only 43% want a freeze in government spending as opposed to 48% who don’t. As is their wont, the people are sending a mixed message: we don’t like Obama’s far left agenda but we also don’t like some of your plans for cutting the budget.
As far as other plans the Republicans might have, the American people reject the idea of “conducting major investigations of the Obama administration” by a 52-42 majority in the Pew poll, while most major polls show at least a large plurality in favor of repealing national health insurance reform.
And the tax cuts? When queried on whether those making more than $250,000 should have their tax cuts extended, 52% said no while 40% agreed.
What this adds up to is a caution light for John Boehner — or whoever is elected speaker. In normal times, the party in power would seek political cover by sharing the risk of offending voters with the opposition, getting them on board early and visibly. But with a third of the GOP caucus imbued with the fervor of the tea party nation to reject compromise and strike a pose for principle, it is doubtful the opportunity will ever arise. At that point, it becomes a blame game and President Obama has a much bigger stage and much louder microphone to make his case that Republicans can’t be trusted running the country because they care more about themselves than ordinary people. In this, the president would not be entirely off base. The people are already suspicious of GOP motives and, according to pollster Scott Rasmussen, the vote yesterday was more against the Democrats than for the Republicans:
Voters today want hope and change every bit as much as in 2008. But most have come to recognize that if we have to rely on politicians for the change, there is no hope. At the same time, Americans instinctively understand that if we can unleash the collective wisdom and entrepreneurial spirit of the American people, there are no limits to what we can accomplish.
In this environment, it would be wise for all Republicans to remember that their team didn’t win, the other team lost. Heading into 2012, voters will remain ready to vote against the party in power unless they are given a reason not to do so.
That reason will be a better economy spurred by GOP-led action on the budget and taxes. Accomplishing this will depend almost entirely on how willing the new conservative blood in Congress is to put aside the excessive partisanship demonstrated by the “no compromise” crowd and work with all sides to get the economy off the schneid and back to creating the wealth and jobs it has created in the past.