A growing list of conservatives, including National Review’s Ramesh Ponnuru and an impressive group writing in the Washington Monthly, are openly hoping the GOP loses the House of Representatives this November. This brings to mind the old adage of being careful about what you wish for.
Those pundits posit that a GOP loss may be the only way to save conservatism. Should Republicans win, it will only reinforce to GOP lawmakers that their big-spending ways got them reelected. If they lose, they will have to reconnect with their base — which they have alienated by increasing the size of government — by becoming true conservatives again.
Other alleged benefits of losing include: A House led by the not-ready-for-prime-time Nancy Pelosi, John Murtha, John Conyers, Henry Waxman, and the rest of the girls, and backed up by the Netroots, will help President Bush’s popularity and provide an excellent foil for the GOP in 2008. Instead of having to worry about running the House and cobbling together majorities for watered-down legislation, Republican House members could actually stand for things that appeal to conservatives. Finally, a divided government is much better for fiscal discipline.
It seems a bit troubling that these otherwise sanguine pundits are viewing the prospect of losing through rose-colored lenses. First, we should never underestimate politicians’ ability to glean the wrong lesson from an election. Recall that one reason Republicans won both chambers of Congress in 1994 was that Democrats fervently believed that the lesson of the 1992 election was that Americans longed for nationalized health care. While the GOP might learn the pitfalls of overspending, they might also conclude that it was their belt-tightening going into the 2006 elections that led to electoral loss. With the likes of Jerry Lewis and Don Young sure to be whispering in their colleagues’ ears that they need to spend more on their constituents to win, it’s a possibility we should be wary of. Members might also “learn,” as Philip Klein has suggested, that what cost them the election was the War in Iraq. If that happens, Democrats can sit back for the next two years while the White House and House Republicans spar over national security issues.
Speaking of Democrats, is anyone at all worried that conservatives might be underestimating Nancy Pelosi? Sure, she comes across as feckless on TV, but she would hardly be the first politician to look bad on the tube and still be effective. She has not done all that badly in keeping her caucus together. Presumably she was responsible, at least in part, for getting John Conyers to backtrack on his impeachment crazy-talk. With a few exceptions such as John Murtha, she has kept the Democrats from talking about what they would specifically do policy-wise should they win control of the House. This has left campaigning Republicans with few easy targets. In other words, her leadership is at least partially responsible for bringing the Democrats to the brink of majority-status in the House. It is far from a foregone conclusion that a Speaker Pelosi would be ineffective.
In addition to underestimating Pelosi, we should also be very wary of some of her lieutenants, many of whom have considerable experience making life miserable for the GOP and conservatives. Most notable among her underlings is Henry Waxman, who is not only creative at using committee hearings to embarrass the opposition, but also adept at using the legislative process to slip in little bits of legislation that advance liberalism. Giving Waxman two years at the helm of the Government Reform Committee is a risky prospect at best.
Next, the loss of the House may cause Republican members to stand for the wrong something — infighting. Rather than having a unified opposition, House Republicans are likely to be mired in recriminations over who lost the House and why. There will likely be challenges and possibly “coup attempts” against House GOP leaders. While the long-term fallout of losing in 2006 may be positive, the short run losses could be very ugly.
Underlying the it-would-be-better-to-lose arguments is the breezy sense that the GOP would have little trouble quickly reclaiming the House. After all, the logic goes, the Democrats will only have the slimmest of majorities — a few seats at best. But as House Republicans have already proven, it is difficult to dislodge the majority party, even one that holds power by a slim margin. During these last 12 years, the GOP has held on to the House despite never having more than 232 members, and at one point dropping to as few as 221. Incumbency provides the majority party with considerable advantages that enable them to beat back challengers. Indeed, it has taken an increasingly unpopular war, lobbying scandals and high gas prices to bring the Democrats to the brink of power. Should Republicans lose the House, they will likely have to wait for a similar aligning of the stars and planets before they can gain it back.
Finally, the contention that divided government leads to fiscal restraint is unconvincing. It rests heavily on the Reagan and Clinton years, but a look at the year-to-year percentage change of the government portion of gross domestic product suggests that fiscal restraint is far more contingent on the political climate. Most of Reagan’s fiscal restraint came in his first two years in office, after his smashing 1980 victory. As the years wore on, and Democrats in the House got better at fighting Reagan, spending began to increase. In the early 1990s, the emergence of the Perot voter — who was very concerned about the federal budget deficit — and the scramble of both Clinton and the GOP to woo those voters, led to spending restraint. However, when the deficit became a surplus in 1998, Washington politicians forgot their frugal ways. This resulted in spending increases in 1999 and 2000 that were the highest since 1990 and set the stage for the spending orgy of the Bush years.
Would Bush and a Democrat-controlled House be an improvement over recent years? Doubtful. Bush is, at best, a squish on fiscal restraint (and that’s being charitable). Last week, House Democrats voted overwhelmingly, 147-45, against a modest earmark reform bill. Sure, Bush might get serious about spending once the Democrats took over, but what would his argument be — that the Democrats were trying to undo all the fiscal restraint he imposed? Indeed, the press would portray him as a cynic, only caring about spending now that the opposition is in power. Since the White House doesn’t seem to have the stomach for such a fight, a more likely scenario is Bush and the House Democrats cutting budget deals resulting in spending increases as bad, if not worse, than what we have now.
There are other areas where the Bush Administration could cut deals with House Democrats that should disturb conservatives. With the Democrats in charge, a Senate-style immigration bill — i.e., amnesty — is far more likely to pass the House. From there it is a quick trip through the Senate to Bush’s signing pen.
Yes, conservatives, myself included, are rightly disgusted with Congressional Republicans’ profligacy. But that disgust is beginning to get through, with Congress recently approving an online database to track spending and the House passing the aforementioned earmark reform. Such efforts will surely stall should Democrats win control of the House. The answer is to keep up the pressure through the grassroots and blogosphere efforts like Porkbusters. A GOP loss of the House in November is just as likely to create more problems for conservatives than it is likely to solve, proving once again that, in politics, there is little virtue in losing.