The Second Marriage

The heavens rejoiced. Two years ago as Democrats cruised to power, Washingtonians felt a jolt of electricity in the air. News organizations published picture books celebrating the dawning of a new age. I distinctly remember seeing angels and cherubs drunk at the bar of the Old Ebbitt Grill near the White House.

Today, the atmosphere is different. Republicans may win the House, but everyone is writing about anger, not inspiration. (Memo to young journalists: Democratic victories are always ascribed to hope; Republican ones to rage.)

The biggest change is in the camp of the potential victors. Two years ago, Democrats waxed romantic. This year, the Republicans seem modest and cautious. I haven’t seen this many sober Republicans since America lost the Ryder Cup.

We have to be careful not to get carried away, says Lamar Alexander, the third-ranking Republican in the Senate. “I was thinking about putting photos of Nancy Pelosi and Henry Waxman in the Republican cloakroom to remind us not to overreach,” he told me on Monday.

We have to beware of unrealistic expectations, emphasized Senator Jon Kyl, the second-ranking Republican. Republicans can’t accomplish big things without Democratic help. They can’t defund Obamacare on their own or pass a new tax law.

Many Americans are still skeptical about us, acknowledged Eric Cantor, the No. 2 Republican in the House. We can’t do anything that might unsettle them, like shutting down the government. Instead, Republicans need to offer reassurance. Businesses should be able to predict what their tax costs will be, what their health costs will be and what their regulatory burdens will be.

In 1994, Newt Gingrich talked about a Republican Revolution, but these Republicans are still suffering from the hangover. Gingrich concentrated power in the speaker’s office, weakened the committee chairmen and built his machine for speed. Today’s Republican leader, John Boehner, vows to do the opposite — to weaken the speaker’s office, decentralize authority and move step by step.

Many Republicans figure the age of permanent majorities is over. Democrats once held the House for 40 years, but now control will likely flip back and forth with the tides. So lasting change has to be firmly implanted and gradually absorbed.

The Republican theory about how to revive economic growth, is best expressed by Alexander: “We have to make it easier and cheaper to create private sector jobs.” Week by week, Republicans hope to issue a string of bills designed to reduce uncertainty, public spending and the cost of hiring.

Some of the measures will attempt to repeal parts of Obamacare. For example, the new health care law has a provision that forces companies to file a 1099 form to the I.R.S. every time they pay more than $600 a year for goods or services from any individual or corporation. If you’re a freelancer and you buy a laptop from an Apple store, you have to file a 1099. If you spend more than $600 per year with FedEx, you have to file a 1099. Republicans are going to make this an early target — an example of the law’s expensive interference in business life.

Republican leaders are also prepared to take what they can get, even if it’s not always what they would like. Republicans would like to extend all the Bush tax cuts until the sun fizzles out. They’re willing to take a compromise extension of two or three years. Republicans are under intense pressure from the business lobbies to compromise with Democrats to get certain things done: more infrastructure spending and tax breaks for energy innovation.

The predictable response to all this gradualism is that the Republican leaders may want this, but there is no way the fire-breathing Tea Party-types are going to cooperate. There’s some truth to this. Rank-and-file Republicans are more hostile to earmarks than the chairmen (who say that without earmarks spending, decisions will just get made by bureaucrats).

There will also be clashes over budgets, raising the debt limit and doctors’ reimbursements. (Democrats are talking about leaving behind legislative traps to maximize G.O.P. discomfort.)

But this leadership-versus-the-crazies storyline is overblown. The new Republicans may distrust government, but this will be a Republican class with enormous legislative experience. Tea Party hype notwithstanding, most leading G.O.P. candidates either served in state legislatures or previously in Washington. The No Compromise stalwarts like Senator Jim DeMint have a big megaphone but few actual followers within the Senate.

Over all, if it is won, a Republican House majority will be like a second marriage. Less ecstasy, more realism. The party could have used a few more years to develop plans about the big things, like tax and entitlement reform. But if a party is going to do well in an election, it should at least be a party that has developed a sense of modesty.

David Brooks, New York Times


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