April 20, 2006,
Before the Fall
Republicans on Capitol Hill seem more interested in complaining about the Bush administration than in winning, or at least limiting their losses in, the midterm elections. The White House is arrogant; it is out of touch; it does not face the same electoral pressures we do: We have heard it all before, and there is truth in each complaint. But perhaps the recriminations can wait until after the elections?
Congress is not going to be in session for many more days this year. There is not much time for congressional Republicans to promote popular legislation as a way of improving their standing even if one assumed, contrary to fact, that they could agree on what legislation that would be. Their fate is therefore tied to the president’s. If the election is held with Bush holding a 35 percent approval rating, they will lose the House. If Bush rises to 45 percent by the fall, they will do fine.
Moreover, Bush is the only Republican official with an interest in the health of the party nationally. Some presidential contenders can calculate that harm to the party will make them look better cast in the role of a savior. Most congressmen know that rain or shine, they will be reelected (although whether they will be reelected to the majority or a minority is an open question). If Republicans are going to recover, Bush is going to have to lead them.
And they are going to have to do a better job of following. That does not mean that Republicans should mute their criticisms of Bush when they honestly think he is mistaken. It does mean that they should not be looking for ways to distance themselves from him. Congressmen should try to spread the good economic news in their districts before carping at Bush’s failure to do the same thing nationally. When there is progress in Iraq, or when bad news is being exaggerated, they have to say so instead of expecting the White House to clear up the record. (American casualties have been falling for months. If Americans don’t hear that from their congressmen, they’re certainly not going to hear it from Katie Couric.) Most Republican congressmen believe that the NSA wiretaps are important to protecting America. Perhaps they should say so. National security is mainly, but not exclusively, an executive responsibility.
Republicans missed the opportunity to start the year with a tough package of ethics, lobbying, and spending reforms. Congressmen did not want to give up their perks, and Bush refused to intervene. It is not too late, however, for congressional Republicans to take action and for Bush to demand it, in public, if they balk. On immigration, Republicans should, if possible, enact an enforcement-first bill and pledge to take up the guest-worker and amnesty issues in a year or two, when border-security benchmarks have been met. If that is not possible, they should shelve the whole topic for now. There is no political upside to passing a bill that will offend conservatives without pleasing the public.
Senate Republicans should push to confirm Bush’s nominees to federal appeals courts and force Democrats to defend putting social liberalism ahead of the law. Congressional Republicans should restrain spending growth this year. Bush should insist on it. He can start by vetoing the “supplemental” spending bill Congress is now cooking up. In the name of Katrina relief, it would spend $700 million to move a just-rebuilt train route a few miles to help some casinos.
Republicans are set to make a modest improvement in health care this year, reducing regulations on small businesses that want to provide coverage for their workers. And they must try to revive their signature domestic issue: taxes. They ought to push to extend the tax cuts that have fueled the economic recovery we are in. Looking down the road, they should endorse a tax reform that reduces the tax burden on families.
Even if they recover some spirit and energy, Republicans are likely to lose seats this fall. But they have some influence over whether this election is a setback or a rout. It is up to them how they wish to use it.