By Ramesh Ponnuru, a senior editor at National Review, is the author of “The Party of Death: The Democrats, the Media, the Courts and the Disregard for Human Life.” (THE NEW YORK TIMES, 13/09/06):
CONSERVATIVES are dreading the November elections. The Republican capture of the House of Representatives in 1994 was one of modern conservatism’s signal political accomplishments. Now the Democrats are poised to take back the House. If that happens, however, conservatives will find several silver linings in the outcome.
It would be worse for conservatives if Republicans actually gained seats. The Congressional wing of the party lost its reformist zeal years ago and has been trying to win elections based on pork and incumbency. An election victory would reward that strategy, leaving the congressmen even less interested in restraining spending, reforming government programs and revamping the tax code. Political incompetence and complacency, sporadic corruption and widespread cynicism: having paid a price for none of it, Republicans would indulge in more of the same.
Of course, that’s just a thought experiment. Almost nobody thinks that Republicans are going to pick up seats. The question is whether they will have a reduced majority or no majority. And outright loss might be preferable. A narrower House majority would most likely accomplish even less than the current one has. The party’s small moderate caucus would gain in power and use it to frustrate conservatives. With no conservative reforms on the horizon, congressmen would revert to the pork strategy.
A straight loss, on the other hand, would make the Republicans hungrier and sharpen their wits. Freed from the obligation of cobbling together thin majorities for watered-down legislation, Republicans would be able to stand for something attractive. Some conservatives worry that Republican officialdom will see defeat as a reason to turn left. But that didn’t happen after the last major Republican defeat in 1992. Then, conservatives were able to persuade the party that it had not lost power because it was too far right. They would make the same case this winter, but with more voices in the news media than they had back then.
The effects of victory on the Democrats may also be helpful to Republicans. Powerlessness has stoked Democrats’ rage. If the party wins the House, its left-leaning “net-roots” may grow more enraged still, because the Democrats would then have the illusion of power without its reality. Even under their most optimistic calculations, they would have the smallest Democratic majority since 1957 — and they will have to deal with a Republican president and (probably) Senate.
House Democrats could initiate countless investigations of the administration and schedule votes to make Republicans look bad. But they could not do much to affect either the conduct of foreign policy or the composition of the courts, which are the areas where their most fervent supporters most desperately want influence. If the Democrats try to appease their base by impeaching the president, they will probably increase President Bush’s poll numbers, much as Republicans once improved President Bill Clinton’s.
So the policy tradeoffs for Republicans are not especially troubling. They would still be able to set foreign policy and appoint judges. They would be blocked only from making domestic-policy reforms they show no sign of attempting anyway.
There is also the matter of the 2008 elections. Do Republicans really want to go into 2008 running a unified government? The last time an election maintained unified party control from one presidency to another was in 1928. And the 2008 elections matter more than the 2006 elections, because, again, the president has more say over foreign policy and the courts than the House does. If Democrats win the House now, the next Republican presidential candidate will be able to run against Nancy Pelosi and the liberal committee chairmen who would suddenly be in the headlines.
Winning in 2006 will make it harder for Democrats to address their long-term structural problems. It has happened before. They confused the Watergate landslide of 1974 for a mandate to embrace McGovernism for 20 years. If they win because of high gas prices, bad war news and conservative discontent now, they will be less likely to adopt new approaches to national security and social issues. That, too, will help Republicans in 2008.
Who knows? If Republicans play their cards right, and the Democrats prove unequal to the task of running the House, the voters could put the Republicans back in power on Capitol Hill in 2008. After a few years in the wilderness, maybe they will be disposed to using that power for conservative ends.