Take no bait. Act independently and in accord with national priorities. Cause no pointless trouble. If there’s trouble, it should have a clear, understandable, defendable purpose.
That is general advice for the new Republican congressional majority. They will be proving every day they’re a serious governing alternative to the Democratic-dominated establishment that has run Washington for six years.
The Republicans are being told they are a deeply divided party. True enough. But another way to look at it may prove more pertinent: “My father’s house has many mansions.” The GOP is showing early signs of actually gathering together again a functioning coalition. The white working class, according to the last election, has joined, at least for now. Coalitions are messy; they have many, often opposing, pieces. FDR ’s included New York socialists, Southern segregationists, Dust Bowl Okies and West Virginia coal miners. But politics is a game of addition and Republicans are adding. They may owe it only to President Obama, but still: His leadership has been an emanation of progressive thought. And a coalition formed by reaction and rejection is still a coalition.
They are rocked by defeat, newly confused as to their own meaning. They’re disappointed with each other, and angry. They know Harry Reid is a poor face of the party, a small-town undertaker who never gets around to telling you the cost of the casket. They have little faith in the strategic and tactical leadership coming from the White House. They recognize the president as an albatross around their necks. Nancy Pelosi is an attractive, noncredible partisan who just natters wordage.
That’s what they’ve got: an undertaker, an albatross, a natterer.
Democrats are individually trying to place themselves right with their own base, which grows more leftishly restive and is losing them the center. They’re trying to figure out how to cleave to that base while remaining politically viable.
The sophisticated and sober-minded GOP class should understand that the national press is dying to impose a story line: extremist, intransigent ideologues come to Washington to defy the president. It’s important to them that the Republicans be the bad guys. If the president can’t quite be painted as the good guy, at least he can be portrayed as the more nuanced and interesting figure, the historic president beset by smaller foes in his last two years.
But the president isn’t the story. That’s what the Republicans need to know. The story is what they make of their new power.
The president wants to be the story. He wants to be the matador taunting the bull with the red cape. He wants to draw the GOP into strange, dramatic impasses. They should not snort, paw the ground and charge. They should shake their heads, smile and gesture to the crowd: “Can you believe this guy?”
Americans have moved on. They want results from the people they just elected. The new Republican majority should try, within the limits imposed by not holding the executive branch, to make progress on their own. They shouldn’t be drawn into the president’s drama, they should act independently. They’re telling their own story. They should comport themselves as if they know the difference between yesterday and tomorrow.
Early on they should take a good, small bill, an economic measure that Republicans will and moderate Democrats can support. They should try very hard to do what the president didn’t do: show bipartisan respect, work with the other side, put out your hand. They should get that bill briskly through the House and Senate. If the president vetoes it, they should attempt to override. If they succeed, they’ve made good law. If they don’t, they try again. In time people will see the culprit, the impediment.
Meantime the president has disasters on his hands. His executive action on immigration, seen by many as daring and clever, may not prove clever. It is assumed he scored points for his party, or his legacy, by granting a form of amnesty to millions of illegal immigrants. But did he? In making that move he removed one of the Republican Party’s problems. They were split on immigration, their adversaries said the reason was racism. The whole issue roiled the Republican base.
Now the president has taken it out of their hands. And he has united them in their condemnation of the manner in which he did it.
At the same time the president took an issue that was a daily, agitating mobilizer of his base and removed it as a factor. He took the kettle off the heat—but that kettle had produced a lot of steam that provided energy to his party.
Now the president has to implement his directive, and implementation has never been his strong suit. He has to tamp down grievances from those who came here legally or are waiting in line. He has to answer immigration activists who think they got too little. He has to face all the critics who will experience and witness the downside of his action on the border.
He took an issue that was a problem for Republicans, and made it a problem for Democrats. That may well prove a political mistake of the first order.
Last week New York’s Chuck Schumer, the third most senior Democrat in the Senate, spoke of a different political mistake. In a speech, he said the Democrats were trounced in 2014 because Mr. Obama wrongly staked everything on ObamaCare. Democrats thus “blew the opportunity” the voters gave them in 2008: “Americans were crying out for an end to the recession, for better wages and more jobs, not for changes in their health care. . . . Had we started more broadly, the middle class would have been more receptive to the idea that President Obama wanted to help them.”
After Mr. Schumer came Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, one of the architects of the ObamaCare law, who told Alexander Bolton of the Hill that it was probably too “complicated. . . . I look back and say we should have either done it the correct way or not done anything at all.”
Then came the reliably interesting former Sen. James Webb of Virginia, a possible presidential candidate. He told a press group in Richmond that the Democratic Party has lost its way. It lost white working-class voters by becoming “a party of interest groups.” As reported in the Washington Post, Mr. Webb said: “The Democratic Party has lost the message that made it such a great party for so many years . . . take care of working people, take care of the people who have no voice in the corridors of power, no matter their race, ethnicity or any other reason.”
He is exactly right. In the Obama era the Democratic Party has gone from being a party of people to a party of issues, such as global warming, and the pressure groups—and billionaires—that push them.
It has become bloodless.
You know how Republicans should be feeling, for the first time in 10 years? Confident. For all their problems, they still have a pulse.