The GOP could use some adults

Sunday, October 31, 2010

In an interview last week with National Journal's Major Garrett, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell was asked what his priority would be for Republicans after their expected gains in Tuesday's election.

The possibilities were many: Balance the budget and pay down the debt? Fight the terrorists and reform entitlements? Support and defend the Constitution?

No, McConnell's priorities were elsewhere. "The single most important thing we want to achieve," he said, "is for President Obama to be a one-term president."

The single most important thing?

This bit of truth-telling, reminiscent of McConnell's lament in August that "I wish we had been able to obstruct more" of Obama's agenda, underscored a problem that will come to the fore if Republicans succeed in winning a majority on Tuesday: The party is sorely in need of grown-ups.

When Republicans gained control of Congress 16 years ago, the revolutionaries were eventually convinced by their leaders to cut deals with President Bill Clinton, leading to milestone achievements on the budget and welfare reform.

But there is no Bob Dole in the Republican leadership today; there isn't even a Newt Gingrich. There is nobody with the clout to tell Tea Party-inspired backbenchers when it's time to put down the grenades and negotiate. Rather, there are weak leaders who, frightened by the Tea Party radicals, have become unquestioning followers of a radical approach.

"This is not a time for compromise," House Republican leader John Boehner informed Sean Hannity on the radio on Wednesday. When Hannity mentioned that retiring Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) called it unwise to attempt a repeal of health-care reform, Boehner replied: "I love Judd Gregg, but maybe he doesn't get it. . . . We're going to do everything - and I mean everything - we can do, to kill it, stop it, slow it down."

After that bit of reasoned dialogue, Boehner resumed his planning to hold a rally with GOP House candidate Rich Iott, a Nazi reenactor.

The rest of Republican House leadership is no better. "Look, there will be no compromise on stopping runaway spending, deficits and debt," Rep. Mike Pence (Ind.), the No. 3 House Republican, told radio host Hugh Hewitt recently. "There will be no compromise on repealing Obamacare. There will be no compromise on stopping Democrats from growing government and raising taxes. And if I haven't been clear enough yet, let me say again: no compromise."

You were perfectly clear the first time, Congressman.

Compromise was not always a dirty word for conservatives. Ronald Reagan - so idolized by Pence that he has perfected a Reaganesque head-tilt while speaking - compromised with the Democrats on Social Security and taxes. American Democracy couldn't function without compromise.

But now there is nobody to stand up to the take-no-prisoners caucus, led by Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.), who has floated the notion of impeaching Obama because she doesn't like his policies, and Sen. Jim DeMint (S.C.), who threatens to leave the GOP if his colleagues don't pursue his biblical-law agenda.

When a blog reported that Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) had assured GOP donors that "crazier Republicans" would not repeal health-care reform because GOP leaders wouldn't allow it, Corker and McConnell both rushed out statements reassuring conservatives that they are devoted to repealing the law.

When former Senate Republican leader Trent Lott told The Post's Shailagh Murray that "we need to co-opt" the new Republicans because "we don't need a lot of Jim DeMint disciples," the furious reaction included a demand from Fox News's Glenn Beck: "I want people like Trent Lott to be shut down in the Republican Party."

And there isn't a single Republican leader, in Congress or among the party's 2012 hopefuls, who has the power to disobey an order from Beck - or Rush Limbaugh, O'Reilly or Hannity.

Last week, Chuck Todd and his NBC colleagues suggested that "the level of anger, disrespect and incivility seems to be at an all-time high right now." I doubt that's so. Yes, a MoveOn activist's head was stomped by a Rand Paul supporter in Kentucky, but my very first story for The Post, 10 years ago, was about fisticuffs between Bill Bradley and Al Gore supporters in New Hampshire.

The difference now is that, particularly on the Republican side, there are no authority figures to say "no" to the angry, the rude and the violent. With a House leader determined not to compromise, and a Senate leader whose top national priority is the defeat of the president, things won't get any better after Tuesday.

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