The GOP and the Temptation of Hubris

If Republicans take over the House, they’d best think carefully how they use their power. Ask Newt Gingrich.

Republicans could still blow it, but as they head toward a likely victory in the midterm election they should consider what it would mean to regain control of the House of Representatives. The perks are great. Several other aspects of power are less enjoyable.

• First of all, power means visibility. In “Lessons Learned the Hard Way,” Newt Gingrich wrote: “If you are seldom covered by the press, which was the case with House Republicans for forty years, you have a lot of leeway to make mistakes. But when you are in people’s living rooms every evening, your mistakes are magnified.” For the past couple of years, Democrats have gained little from attacking House GOP leaders, since few voters know or care who those leaders are. Once they are in power, they will also be in the bull’s-eye.

• Power means temptation. In 2006, Republicans lost their majority partly because of scandals. Their minority status has since been a moral safeguard of sorts, because smart crooks don’t bribe politicians who lack the ability to do anything. When Republicans gain committee chairs and the capacity to pass bills, they will suddenly find lots of new friends offering favors. They will also be tempted to demand such favors as the price of doing business. But sooner or later, bad behavior brings political ruin—or worse: The last time Republicans were in power, Duke Cunningham’s “bribe menu” helped land him in prison, where he still sits.

• Power means frustration. Right after their 1994 takeover, House Republicans underestimated obstacles in the Senate and overlooked the little matter of the presidential veto. “Even if you pass something through both the House and the Senate, there is that presidential pen,” Mr. Gingrich wrote in “Lessons Learned.” “How could we have forgotten that?” Republicans talk about repealing President Obama’s health-care legislation. He would surely veto a repeal, and there is practically no chance that Republicans could muster a two-thirds majority in both chambers to override the veto. What would they do then?

• Power means internal conflict. While commentators often portray the House Republicans as unified and disciplined, the image is inaccurate. A couple of years after leading them to victory, Mr. Gingrich had to put down an internal coup by members unhappy with his leadership. The problem was not merely his personality. The party has long grappled with deep rifts over strategies, tactics, regional interests and schools of conservative thought.

Gaining a majority this autumn could deepen the rifts, because the stakes will be greater. The large cohort of new members will include social moderates, religious conservatives and tea party activists who will have much to fight about.

• Power means loss of perspective. Majorities often mistakenly believe that a loving electorate has given them a warrant to do anything they desire. There will always be aides and lobbyists who will reinforce this belief by telling powerful politicians what they want to hear. Such attitudes lead to trouble. Moves such as the Clinton impeachment backfired on the GOP, and health-care legislation is now hurting the Democrats.

• Above all, power means responsibility. As political scientist William F. Connelly Jr. reminds us in his splendid new book, “James Madison Rules America,” no party in the U.S. Congress is ever simply the “opposition.” Like it or not, a Republican majority will have to work with the president to pass budgets and conduct the routine business of government.

As the 1995-1996 government shutdowns showed, failures can cause enormous political turmoil. And with vastly larger deficits nowadays, Congress’s responsibilities will be heavy indeed.

Republicans hold the keys to majority status in their hands. They won’t like everything that’s on the other side of the door.

Mr. Pitney teaches American politics at Claremont McKenna College and is co-author of “American Government and Politics: Deliberation, Democracy, and Citizenship” (Wadsworth, 2010).


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