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Republican Doldrums

It's easy to point fingers at Big Government Bush as the reason for the GOP's malaise. But has the Republican Congress acquitted itself any better?

By 4.25.06

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This article appears in the April 2006 issue of The American Spectator. To subscribe, click here.

As the 2006 mid-term elections near, a sense of foreboding prevails among Republicans -- the powerful in Washington and the rank-and-file around the country. Although George W. Bush is blamed by both groups, they are unhappy for different reasons.

At the grassroots, the party faithful fret that the GOP has lost its groove. In the sixth year of the Bush presidency, the tenth year of controlling the Senate, and the twelfth year of running the House, Republicans are basically functioning without a conservative agenda. In particular, party activists mourn what they see as a lack of even a rhetorical attack against mushrooming government.

The distress in the capital is not really ideological at all. Members of Congress complain that the President's unpopularity may cause them to lose their majority. To hear Republican lawmakers and their well-paid lobbyist allies tell it, no greater misfortune could befall the Republic and indeed the West than a Democratic recapture of either house of Congress. Their complaint against President Bush is that his unpopularity could lose them the privileges they have cherished the past decade.

This state of affairs under normal conditions would point to a Republican calamity on November 7, a turn of events with precedents in the final mid-term election of two-term presidents. Franklin D. Roosevelt, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Ronald Reagan -- all much more popular than Bush -- suffered severe losses in 1938, 1958, and 1986, respectively.

On the surface, the Republican state of affairs in 2006 seems at least as serious as it was in '38, '58, or '86 because of the very causes for Republican discontent. Apart from having an unpopular president without a clear agenda as its head, a party interested mainly in retaining its majority would seem to be writing its own ticket to oblivion.

That is a view held by prominent Republicans outside the confines of Congress. Indiana Governor Mitchell Daniels, who headed the political office in the Reagan White House, was considered one of the nation's most astute political strategists prior to his first attempt at public office in 2004. In a recent speech in Indiana, he warned that the desire to stay in the majority is not a sufficient public appeal to the electorate.

On top of this, George W. Bush lacks the compelling warmth of FDR, Ike, or Reagan. He is truly not a good politician. Republicans, in Washington and the hinterlands alike, complain that he is reclusive and unfriendly. The mindset of a President who even finds it difficult to return an autographed photograph in a timely manner spreads over to his aides. Bush's staff is seen by prominent Republicans as peering through the White House windows at the rest of the world with contempt and disdain.

YET IN THE POLITICAL WORLD there is not the same sense of an impending huge turnover in Congress this year as there was in 1994 when the Republicans won 54 House seats and eight Senate seats to gain control of both houses for the first time in 40 years. The reason in no small part is systemic. Utilizing the computer's magic, politicians of both parties have so thoroughly gerrymandered House districts that the huge swings of the past seem nearly impossible. Of the set rotation under which one-third of the Senate's seats are contested in every election, the current cycle seems most favorable to the Republicans.

One important issue also runs to the advantage of the Republicans. Homeland security is one area where approval of President Bush remains high. Paradoxically, the greatest campaign vulnerability for Republicans is the continued battlefield casualty list from Iraq. Nevertheless, for the time being at least, lack of confidence in the Democratic ability to fight terrorism is a major Republican asset.

Indeed, Republicans may escape catastrophe this year because of what I have called the Henny Youngman Syndrome. The old standup comic often began his routine by being asked, "How's your wife?" Henny replied: "Compared to what?" Republicans seek votes by tacitly urging citizens to forget their faults because the Democrats are much worse. In that sense, Nancy Pelosi, Howard Dean, and Teddy Kennedy could be the most valuable players of 2006 for the GOP.

That constitutes a shaky platform for continuing political control. To many grassroots Republicans, the President has failed badly to stop the growth of the federal leviathan. Actually, the only radical presidential effort at spending reduction was made by Reagan in 1981 and not repeated after major Democratic gains in the recession election of 1982.

Beyond that understandable failure to slow the growth of government, Bush has lost ground with the conservative base by proactively adding to its spread while falling short in his announced goals of two major reforms for his second term: Social Security and taxes.

BUSH WORKED HARD IN 2005 to sell the nation on personal Social Security accounts, but he never had a plan of his own and surrendered any hope of passage in this year's State of the Union address (at which mention, jubilant Democrats rendered him a rare standing ovation). The loss of the opportunity to expand the Republican base through massively increased stock ownership was squandered.

The loss of the tax-reform issue is an even sorrier failure of leadership. Bush, House Speaker Dennis Hastert, and other Republican leaders have expressed varying degrees of interest in the proposed "Fair Tax": total repeal of the income tax, abolition of the Internal Revenue Service, and replacement by a national sales tax (with across-the-board rebates in the interest of tax fairness). Would the American people accept that plan if told it would relieve them of IRS scrutiny? Nobody will ever know, because Bush never tried to explain it.

Instead, as he had done in the case of Social Security reform, the President named a bipartisan commission to study tax overhaul. The course it would take was made clear by the dominance on the commission of Democrat John Breaux, a former senator from Louisiana who seldom gave the Republicans a vote when it counted. The commission's report, incredibly, called for a more progressive tax structure. The report's publication sounded the death knell of Bush's tax reform, of which nothing more has been heard.

In the interests of mobilizing his conservative base, Bush's legislative record consists of one home run and two strikeouts. The success was his deep tax reduction that has created a sunny economic environment and outlook. The failures were what Bush political adviser Karl Rove considered this administration's major political accomplishments: the federal education expansion ("No Child Left Behind") and the prescription drug subsidy under Medicare.

The education plan and prescription drug benefits, opposed from the start by many backbench Republicans in Congress, constituted an audacious political venture by Rove. Assuming the Republican base was rock-solid, these proposals were intended to enlarge the Republican constituency. Under ferocious Democratic assault from the moment that they were introduced, they did not achieve their intent of Republican encroachment on the school and health care votes. The Republican fear is that they have depressed the Republican base.

This is less a failure of Bush's "compassionate conservatism" than confirmation of the ineffectiveness of "big-government conservatism," which may succeed only in a totalitarian environment. The election returns of 2006 may not confirm this, but expanding the government in the interest of supposedly conservative goals does not nourish conservative voter morale.

IT IS NOT JUST A FRINGE of right-wing extremists in Congress that bemoans the course taken by President Bush. The education and Medicare bills passed only because of intense pressure on Republican legislators, and they now see those bills as the possible cause of their own demise.

That attitude contributes to the second-term desire of congressional Republicans to separate themselves from the re-elected President. "Welcome to the second term, Mr. President!" declared a member of the House Republican leadership less than a month after Bush's re-election in 2004. He actually was speaking not to the President, but to me, to explain Bush's defeat on intelligence reform just a month after his re-election victory had made him an instant lame duck under the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution.

The Republican members of Congress are also reluctant to answer for their own contribution to their party's malaise. During the past eleven years, the Republicans controlling the legislative branch have come to look more and more like the Democrats who sat in those chairs over the previous four decades. Hard to believe though it is, the Republicans are in some ways worse, as in the use of earmarks and the growth of lobbyists' power. They will not admit it, but the Republicans in Congress have made their own bed for this year's election.

Like the children of biblical Israel who so enjoyed the "flesh pots" of Egypt, Republicans derive too much pleasure from the joys of majority status in Congress. Far from being a reason to re-elect them, their attitude toward living the good life in Washington may be reason for their defeat.

Robert D. Novak is a nationally syndicated columnist and a commentator for Fox News.This article appears in the April 2006 issue of The American Spectator. To subscribe, click here.

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