Republicans have had their share of troubles of late. Not every error can be averted by more precise information, but clarity about one’s own obligations and others’ motives do help keep down the error rate. So here’s a guide to some of the most damaging misconceptions that have bedeviled Republicans of all stripes:
1. “I can vote no because it will pass anyway.” This is how small protests (no on the debt limit!) become party-wide disasters. You never know who is going to follow along and how a bigger margin of victory for errant protests can affect the balance of power. Each lawmaker has a constitutional and moral obligation that cannot be offloaded to others. If, for example, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) had the support of less than 10 senators instead of almost 20 who were hanging on for bragging rights with the base, the entire shutdown fiasco might have been short-circuited. At any rate, you are a representative of actual voters who should not have to rely on someone else’s representative to save the country from disasters you have contributed to.
2. “Only the radicals have policy ideas.” Nonsense. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) is an idea factory but was also opposed to the defund strategy and now is looking for a modest-sized budget deal. The sequester that hardliners now cling to was the work of the “establishment” and was opposed by many of these same extremists.
3. “Americans want what they wanted 20 or 30 years ago.” Federal income tax rates are low, and many don’t pay federal income tax, thanks to a Republican president (George W. Bush). Tax reform is not the No. 1 objective of most Americans, or even most Republicans. “Opportunity” is not merely accumulating more wealth or starting a business (although it can be), but it also means the opportunity for time with family, for non-extravagant higher education, for being part of a embracing community and for control over one’s own life. So long as Republicans define “opportunity” in purely wealth-creation or wealth-accumulation terms, they’ll miss a lot of Americans.
4. “Everyone wants to start their own business.” Only people who work 80 hours a week and/or have their own business could believe that. By the way, there are a zillion more employees (voters) than bosses.
5. “Government stinks.” Well, it can stink, particularly if elected officials don’t take governance seriously. However, if you want to run on the premise that virtually all of the federal government could go away, that government is incapable of doing much of anything and people want government “off their backs,” get ready to lose a lot of elections. (Come to think of it, Republicans have!) Limited and energetic government. Government that serves the people. Government that does fewer things but does them well. These are all attainable and popular. Republicans should focus on them.
6. “You can get everything your side wants by being stubborn.” This is the “don’t blink” and “I won” school of government (by Cruz and President Obama, respectively). In fact, being obnoxious doesn’t usually pay off, nor does it win the day unless everyone with the ability to block your plans agrees with you. Otherwise, it might be wise to build bridges and learn to love half a loaf.
7. “It doesn’t matter if they hate me.” Certain (not all) of those who caused the shutdown relish being despised by their peers and finding themselves alienated from both parties. I suppose it feeds their narcissism to adopt the pose of martyrdom. However, it is a sign you won’t accomplish much and moreover that you don’t know how to persuade, to lead and to unify. It’s not presidential, if that matters to you.
8. “What matters is to fight.” That may be the dumbest line ever devised to explain gross irresponsibility. What matters is to serve the country and improve the lives of Americans in tangible ways. That does not include Pyrrhic victories, principled losses or “they will thank me later” excuses to voters who have been harmed by your excesses.
9. “I’m an ideas person; let the other guys do all the nitty-gritty stuff.” That sounds frankly a lot like Obama and, more important, like a career mismatch. It’s great to give speeches and to critique your side and the other side. But no one in Congress was elected to the speaking circuit or to write great op-eds. You do such things in the service of your real job — which is to exercise oversight, pass laws, etc. If none of that is of much interest, you should stop taking salary from taxpayers, leave Congress and go write and speak full time.
10. “Republicans won, too!” Well, yes. And the president won reelection and the Democrats kept the Senate. Republicans remain part of government but have no entitlement and no real chance to run over the other two. The president can be stopped from doing bad things (raising taxes on everyone), but if you want to do something (other than speak and write and claim martyr status), you will need some of those people who also won to go along with you. (See #7.)