Under ordinary circumstances, a Washington Monthly symposium calling for an end to the Republican congressional majority might be interesting to read but not terribly surprising. The noted liberal magazine would be expected to welcome the idea of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. What attracted attention was the fact that the October cover package was entirely written by prominent conservatives, fed up with their party after 12 years of nearly uninterrupted rule on Capitol Hill.
“As a conservative who’s interested in the long-term health of both my country and the Republican Party,” Bruce Bartlett began, “I have a suggestion for the GOP in 2006: lose.” Longtime conservative activist and direct-mail guru Richard Viguerie estimated “that 40 percent of conservatives are ambivalent about the November elections or want the Republicans to lose.” Christopher Buckley, son of William F., confessed that he wrote in George H.W. Bush in 2004—just like liberal Republican Sen. Lincoln Chafee—and harbors “the guilty hope that my party loses” this year and again in 2008.
For the past year, the polls have shown that a large number of voters wish to bid the Republican Congress farewell. Now an increasing number of conservative activists and intellectuals are entertaining the same heretical thought. “What we need,” a GOP Capitol Hill staffer leans forward and whispers, “is to get our asses kicked.”
Not all of these disgruntled conservatives are as alienated from their party and movement as Jeffrey Hart, who wrote that “Bushism has poisoned the very word [conservatism].” Hart’s fellow National Review senior editor Ramesh Ponnuru has been a strong supporter of President Bush. Yet he penned an op-ed for the New York Times suggesting that it might not be so bad if “one of modern conservatism’s signal political accomplishments”—the 1994 Republican takeover of the House of Representatives—was reversed this fall.
“It would be worse if Republicans actually gained seats,” Ponnuru wrote. “The Congressional wing of the party lost its reformist zeal years ago and has been trying to win elections based on pork and incumbency.” Ponnuru’s colleague Jonah Goldberg agreed that if the Democrats won, “the silver lining would be fairly thick,” though he stopped short of endorsing that outcome. Goldberg concluded, “As Henry Kissinger said in 1986 of the Iran-Iraq war: Too bad they can’t both lose.”
That sentiment may be strongest on the small, beleaguered antiwar Right. It seems unlikely that congressional Democrats would de-fund the Iraq War —there are too many liberal hawks and a de-funding bill in the House has few cosponsors—the way their forebears cut off money for Vietnam and thwarted President Reagan on aid to the Contras. But Republican losses would go a long way toward discrediting the Bush doctrine.
While it is easy to see why conservatives who have abandoned the GOP over Iraq might welcome the party’s defeat, what do members of the Beltway Right stand to gain from a Democratic Congress? Based on the current polling data, Democrats are projected to win the House by a slender margin while the Republicans narrowly retain the Senate, which has the power to confirm judges. With a majority of ten seats or less, House Democrats will have an extremely difficult time writing their policy preferences into law. But they will see their liberal party leadership become household names.
In addition to Pelosi as speaker, abiding by seniority rules would produce a very liberal committee-chair lineup. Congressman Charlie Rangel would ascend to the top spot on the House Ways and Means Committee, giving him the jurisdiction to agitate for higher taxes. John Conyers is poised to take over the Judiciary Committee chairmanship. Along with John Dingell, Henry Waxman, and Alcee Hastings, these high-profile Democrats seem as likely to alienate moderate swing voters as Tom DeLay. And conservatives hope that Democratic investigations of the Bush administration will prove as unpopular as the Republicans’ anti-Clinton hearings in the 1990s.
Conservatives whose motivations are more anti-statist than anti-leftist have additional reasons to seek a changing of the guard. It has been ten years since congressional Republicans last attempted significant federal spending reductions. Even modest cuts to offset new expenditures have to be wrung with great difficulty from the GOP leadership by angry conservative House backbenchers. It isn’t because Republicans are trying and failing to rein in spending, as was at least arguably the case during the Reagan administration —the government growth is happening by design.
“Despite the failures, one had the sense that the party at least knew in its heart of hearts that these were failures, either of principle or execution,” Christopher Buckley wrote in The Washington Monthly. “Today one has no sense, aside from a slight lowering of the swagger-mometer, that the president or the Republican Congress is in the least bit chastened by their debacles.”
Small-government conservatives are ready to conclude that their attempt to curb Washington’s appetite through a majority that was supposed to be ideologically congenial—that is, entirely Republican—has failed. Now they recall wistfully the bad old days of Bill Clinton, when discretionary spending grew at half the rate that has prevailed under Bush and are ready to try divided government instead. Who knows? A time in the wilderness may even give the GOP a chance to come up with an agenda other than self-preservation.
“A straight loss … would make the Republicans hungrier and sharpen their wits,” Ponnuru argued. “Freed from the obligation of cobbling together thin majorities for watered-down legislation, Republicans would be able to stand for something attractive.”
Be careful what you wish for, counters John J. Pitney, professor of government at Claremont McKenna College. “I don’t think the case for losing to win is entirely without merit,” Pitney says. “But I remember what it was like the last time Republicans were in the minority.”
After all, what looks likely to be a small GOP loss now could become a big defeat on election day, especially if conservatives don’t turn out. With Republicans faltering in Virginia and Tennessee, the Senate no longer looks as secure as it once did. If the Democrats win both houses of Congress, their fundraising capabilities—and their ability to hold onto power—will increase dramatically.
It also strikes some conservatives as unwise to bet so heavily in favor of Democratic overreach and ineptitude. The party leadership may already be planning to sidestep easily avoidable pitfalls. There have even been reports that many of the more liberal ranking members may be passed over for committee chairmanships to foil a predictable Republican line of attack. Citing a character from “Law & Order,” Pitney quips, “Crazy ain’t stupid.”
Speaking at a breakfast for journalists organized by The American Spectator, Congressman Mike Pence, chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee, argued that a Democratic victory would be counterproductive. “We need more of us, not more of them,” he said. Pence even held out hope that a reduced GOP majority would actually be more conservative. “We are a majority of a majority,” he said of congressional conservatives. “We’re not yet a majority.”
A caucus that is smaller, chastened, and more conservative may be a lot to wish for. The three endangered moderate House incumbents running in Connecticut are all leading their opponents. The three vulnerable conservatives seeking re-election in Pence’s Indiana are all trailing theirs. But Pence isn’t the only conservative encouraging Republican voters to stay the course.
“There is no choice because the alternative is horrible,” Dr. James Dobson insisted to the Los Angeles Times. Dobson is an influential social conservative but not a very politically savvy one. In 1998, an election cycle in which the GOP had done more for the Religious Right than in this one, he threatened to bolt the Republican Party and admitted to voting for Howard Phillips over Bob Dole two years earlier. Now he claims Republicans must be re-elected at all costs.
Yet it is true that a Democratic majority would be risky, especially on immigration. De facto open borders are a major reason for conservative disenchantment with Bush, but House Republicans have held the line against amnesty. Democratic gains “improve the chances of something like the Senate bill,” says Pitney. Or worse—some Democrats oppose even that bill’s token concessions to pro-enforcement legislators.
Besides immigration, the House has for all its faults been better at passing conservative legislation—tax cuts, budget offsets, abortion restrictions—than the Senate. Some conservatives argue that a GOP House is more important than a nominally Republican upper chamber. Others point out that Republican losses will enhance the case for moderate presidential contenders like John McCain in 2008.
Nevertheless, conservative gains have often followed Republican electoral setbacks. Ronald Reagan would not have been elected in 1980 if Gerald Ford had won a full term in 1976. Republicans probably wouldn’t have captured Congress if George H.W. Bush had won re-election in 1992.
And where would the conservative movement be if the GOP had gone with a viable Rockefeller Republican in 1964 rather than suffering a landslide defeat with Barry Goldwater? That movement is today weighed down by big-government conservatism and George W. Bush’s foreign policy. A Republican loss would be the best way to repudiate both crippling trends.
It is easy to imagine how a resurgent Democratic Party might make things worse. But how can rewarding the current Republican majority make things any better?