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Too Long in the Wilderness

By Russ Smith | Posted 9/27/2006

Within the space of a week last month, National Review's Ramesh Ponnuru and Jonah Goldberg contributed op-eds to The New York Times and Los Angeles Times, respectively, suggesting it might be advantageous for conservatives if Democrats won control of the House of Representatives. The opinions weren't driven by the questionable notion that the country is better off when the federal government's power is shared between Republicans and Democrats. Instead, they were driven by profound discontent with President Bush's administration and the GOP majority, who have so sullied the core tenets of conservatism that a "period in the wilderness" would force the party to re-examine its values and emerge as a stronger political force in 2008 and beyond.

Ponnuru, writing on Sept. 13, said, "A straight loss [in the House] 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." The sliver-lining theory continues with the idea that a Democratic House, led by Speaker Nancy Pelosi, might attempt to instigate impeachment proceedings against Bush for his perceived foreign policy "lies" and breaches of privacy, and concludes that the backlash effect could be similar to the public's disapproval of the GOP-led impeachment against Bill Clinton in '98.

Ponnuru, a cultural conservative, is living on a pink cloud if he believes the GOP could recover quickly from a midterm defeat. On the matter of impeachment--Democrats say they plan no such action, but that's pre-takeover chatter--it's impossible to predict how such a controversy would play out. Should the Iraq war escalate even further, with more U.S. military casualties, it's likely citizens would be angrier over that than Clinton's sexual indiscretions. And if Ponnuru thinks the bloated bureaucracy and pork-barrel politics is bad now, wait until the Democrats take over.

I'm in full agreement with Ponnuru and Goldberg (who echoed his colleague's view the next day in the L.A. Times, although in a more humorous and less doctrinaire manner) that Bush's Medicare legislation was a disgrace peddled simply for political gains. The president's inability to make any headway on Social Security reform, partly because he never presented an articulate blueprint on an extremely controversial issue, is one of his failures as chief executive. Bush, early in his first term, completely caved into the Democrats on the vital matter of making school vouchers the cornerstone of education reform.

Perhaps Ponnuru's piece is merely a defense mechanism, girding himself for a possible Democratic takeover. Or maybe it's a fake-out, a signal to his equally Beltway-obsessed opposites at liberal publications like The American Prospect and Slate.com that the stalwart right wing has given up. Yet when he writes that a GOP loss of the House "isn't especially troubling," because "[Republicans] would still be able to set foreign policy and appoint judges," it's a lapse of clear thinking.

Should Pelosi ascend to the speaker's chair after a House takeover, it's quite possible that she will be part of an "angry voter" wave that also gives her party control of the U.S. Senate. And if that happens, Ponnuru can forget about Bush's ability to appoint conservative judges or set foreign policy. Furthermore, a GOP loss of the Senate wouldn't be temporary; the '08 races are far more forbidding than even this year, with Democrats defending just 12 seats compared to the GOP's 21. That period in the congressional wilderness, even if a Republican succeeds Bush, will last a lot longer than two years.

I doubt that Republican voters--whether they're religious conservatives or anti-tax/strong defense proponents--share the views of National Review's purists, who bear resemblance to the "netroot" Democrats who believe Sen. Joe Lieberman is a traitor to his party even though he's voted against Bush on almost every domestic initiative. Even a slim Democratic majority, in one or both houses of Congress, would render Bush politically impotent, and the public would be inundated with tax-hike proposals, obscene attempts to muzzle corporations like Wal-Mart, and fruitless acquiescence to the United Nations on foreign-policy decisions. That's an enormously steep price to pay for the satisfaction of punishing Republicans who don't hew to a 100 percent adoption of conservative ideology.

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