Political Hay

Bob Michel Returns

Instead of fighting to win, Republican leaders settle down for a long winter's nap.

By 7.25.08

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Bob Michel may be the unluckiest man in American politics. By all accounts a decent and affable fellow, he was elected to the House of Representatives the year after Joseph Martin surrendered the speaker's gavel to Sam Rayburn for the final time. The Peoria Republican went on to suffer 38 years of humiliation in the minority. Michel retired in 1994, the year his party took control of the House for the first time in four decades.

"In the House, while we're still in the minority where I've always been, we're pulling together and making the most of our numbers," Michel, then the House minority leader, said when he announced his retirement in October 1993. "And even though I believe the prospects are excellent for our winning big in the House next year, I'm not sure it will be enough to make me the speaker." Michel's successor as House Republican leader, Newt Gingrich, became the next speaker.

Then again, in politics you have to make your own luck and it was no coincidence that Republicans recaptured Congress as Michel was leaving town. Although he would usually lead his party in dutifully opposing the Democratic legislative agenda, the outcome seldom varied. After a bit of Gandhian passive resistance, Michel and his troops would lose graciously. That's just what Republicans did during Michel's time in Washington.

As it turns out, he should have stuck around. Bob Michel Republicanism is making a comeback. President Bush backed off his initial veto threat and capitulated on a Democratic housing bill that would extend as much as $300 billion in new loan guarantees through the Federal Housing Administration. The measure then sailed through the House, with 45 Republicans backing Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the president, though more than enough held firm that a veto could have been sustained. Heeding Gingrich's advice to oppose the bill, House Minority Leader John Boehner told the Politico, "I am very disappointed," after learning that Bush was on the other side.

Boehner isn't entirely in Michel territory yet. He and ten of his GOP colleagues recently came back from an American energy tour, where they intended to highlight Democratic opposition to increased domestic production in the face of rising prices at the pump. Finally, some leading Republicans have taken a position that is both reasonably popular and reasonably conservative on an issue of great importance to many voters.

That's one salient issue -- high energy costs -- down and several more to go if the Republicans are going to overcome Democratic domestic-policy advantages in the 2008 campaign. But even Boehner seems to have mostly given up on the idea of retaking the House anytime soon. At an American Spectator lunch earlier this week, he repeatedly said the GOP was not going to nationalize the fall congressional elections. "It's a political decision, and frankly, one that I'm comfortable with," he insisted.

Your humble servant asked Boehner if there was any strategy to regain the majority or at least mitigate this year's losses. I don't think I am being unfair in saying that his answer was basically, "No." Unless you consider saying the word "drill," hoping that John McCain will win the presidential election (with coattails, no less), and letting individual members do their own thing in their own districts a sufficient winning strategy. An every man for himself approach to congressional campaigns is fine for a majority party pleased with the status quo. Or Bob Michel Republicans who are happy being in the minority.

IT DIDN'T HAVE TO be this way. The Democrats did not win overwhelming congressional majorities in 2006. They barely, but for the grace of Conrad Burns and "Macaca," took the Senate. And even their margin in the House was hardly insurmountable. If Republicans had simply won back the red congressional districts they lost due to scandal, which ought to have been doable even in a still-Democratic climate, they would have been nearly a third of the way back to the majority.

Instead Republicans lagged in fundraising and candidate recruitment while the Democrats scored three special election victories in red House districts just this year. Senior House Republicans headed for the exits, with upwards of thirty retirements. If Republican numbers tumble to pre-1994 levels, it will take another 1994 for them to reclaim the speaker's gavel. And the less that is said about the GOP's 2008 Senate prospects, the better.

Even now, Michelization is not inevitable. The Democratic Congress's approval ratings hover around the single digits. Despite all the advantages and favorable media coverage, Barack Obama is struggling with a 2-to-4 point lead in national tracking polls. The American people's dyspepsia with the Republicans hasn't yet led them to embrace the Democrats.

Yet Republicans seem to be suffering their own version of what Phil Gramm might call a mental recession. Bob Michel is a good man and there are certainly far worse politicians for today's GOP leadership to emulate. But another good-natured Republican leader used to say, "There is no substitute for victory."

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About the Author

W. James Antle III, author of the new book Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped?, is editor of the Daily Caller News Foundation and a senior editor of The American Spectator. You can follow him on Twitter @jimantle.