When Dan Lungren began his first stint as a congressman in 1979, it wasn’t easy to be a Republican in Washington. Democrats held the White House and both houses of Congress. Republicans were “exhausted and bereft of ideas.” There was no Ronald Reagan, but plenty of deal-making GOP incumbents who were just happy to be in Congress. Government was growing and the economy was racked by stagflation.
Back then, Lungren joined with other conservative upstarts like Newt Gingrich, Jack Kemp, Vin Weber, Trent Lott, and Bob Walker to change the way Republicans did business. Over time, they supplied an alternative to the Democratic agenda and came to replace the GOP establishment’s ossified leadership. But things are starting to look a lot like they did in 1979. So Lungren, who returned to Congress after a 16-year absence in 2005, is ready once again to take on both the Democrats and the “coalition of the comfortable” within his own party.
The Californian is going to start by challenging House Minority Leader John Boehner. After “two successive election losses” that have cost House Republicans 50 seats, with Boehner at the helm of both debacles, Lungren argues it is time for a change. He complains that Joe the Plumber did a better job articulating the Republican economic message than the GOP congressional leadership, the party’s presidential standard-bearer or the Republican National Committee. “In some ways,” Lungren contends, “we have become those who we have fought before.”
Boehner shouldn’t shoulder all — or even most — of the blame for the Republicans’ woes. But he declined to come up with any real strategy for retaking the majority and has certainly promoted his share of the big-government conservatism that has blurred distinctions with the Democrats. He voted for the Medicare prescription drug benefit, adding trillions to the federal government’s unfunded liabilities and saddling taxpayers with the biggest entitlement program since LBJ’s Great Society. Worse, he was a sponsor of No Child Left Behind and has since touted its record increases in federal education spending.
This new largesse was supposed to buy Republicans the loyalty of senior citizens and centrist suburbanites worried about the public schools. But the Democrats insisted that neither program went far enough and whatever boost they provided Republicans among these voting blocs proved short-lived. Come January 20, 2009, Barack Obama’s party will control the elected branches of the federal government.
LUNGREN HAS EXPERIENCE with a different approach. A founding member of the Conservative Opportunity Society in the 1980s, he says his colleagues learned from the Vietnam-era antiwar movement that “if you define the debate, you define the agenda.” He pressed for reduced taxes, restrained spending, and the Reagan defense buildup in the House. As California’s tough-on-crime attorney general for two terms in the 1990s, he championed Megan’s Law, three-strikes-and-you’re-out, and the state’s Safe Schools Plan. He was crushed in the 1998 gubernatorial race, but six years later he came back to the House and compiled a staunchly conservative voting record.
Yet Lungren’s late, long-shot bid is not without problems. While he has a keen memory of what Gingrich and company did to revitalize a dispirited Republican minority, he is vague about how he would apply those lessons today. Lungren spoke to a teleconference of bloggers about the way Republicans utilized C-SPAN back in the ’80s, but his announcement of the conference call — his team mistakenly labeled it a “bloggers’ row” — demonstrated a certain haziness with today’s cutting-edge media outreach.
Lungren, who is keeping the race a gentlemanly affair, also lacks a clear issue like George H.W. Bush’s 1990 tax increase with which to differentiate himself from the current leadership. Boehner called the $700 billion Wall Street bailout a “crap sandwich” but urged Republicans to eat it anyway. Lungren was one of the happy diners, who still defends it as a “financial rescue” and is critical only of the way Republicans talked about the vote. Lungren is an eloquent opponent of the automobile industry bailout, but when a reporter repeatedly asked him how the first bailout would complicate the case against the second he could only argue that what Republican leaders did “was not precedential.”
While Boehner was passing No Child Left Behind, Lungren wasn’t in Congress. He was back in California while Boehner was voting for the Medicare prescription drug benefit. (Lungren’s spokesman said he would get back to me on both of these issues.) While Lungren’s position on earmarks is sensible — he favors transparency and opposes earmarks that don’t have a legitimate federal purpose — it isn’t noticeably to the right of Boehner’s.
Instead Lungren emphasizes messaging and procedural differences with the current leader. He wants to “throw out the regular rules and have at least three hours devoted to debate about who the next leader should be.” He is critical of Republicans for trying to co-opt the Democrats — and the makers of the antidepressant Effexor — by adopting the “Change You Deserve” slogan. Both are perfectly reasonable stances, but neither seems like much of a rallying cry for the right.
Nevertheless, Lungren can still make this case: He was in Congress when conservatives led the Republicans out of the wilderness. Boehner has presided over their return to minority status. The argument against rewarding failure didn’t take after the 2006 elections, when Boehner crushed Mike Pence 168 to 27 (with one of those Boehner votes coming from Lungren). It may not prevail this time, since there is no guarantee Lungren will have even Pence’s vote. But eventually, some Republican somewhere in the conference will grow tired of losing. That Republican will end up backing Lungren’s challenge to the existing leadership — or mounting the next one.