The Magazine

The Governing Party

From the December 1, 2003 issue: Conservatives discover the downside of being the majority.

Dec 1, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 12 • By FRED BARNES
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CONGRESSIONAL REPUBLICANS were lining up votes last week for a compromise bill creating a prescription drug benefit for America's 40 million elderly. At the same time, Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle was waving a placard with a picture of a lemon, the letters "Rx," and a slash across both. He chanted, "No more lemons!" In London, President Bush was delivering a speech in defense of the use of military force and solidifying his bond with British prime minister Tony Blair. In New Hampshire, meanwhile, Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry was airing a TV ad accusing Bush of having "deserted" American soldiers.

The contrast between oh-so-serious Republicans and unhinged Democrats is a telling one. Republicans--many of them anyway, and especially Newt Gingrich--believe they're acting, at long last, like a governing majority. Once a raucous band of outsiders, they've grown up since taking control of the White House and Congress and now expect to dominate Washington for years to come. Democrats, on the other hand, are frenzied, furious, and fulminating, just like Republicans of fairly recent vintage. The new Democratic trademark is the wild charge. This role reversal delights Republicans, but there's a downside.

What does it mean to be a governing majority? It means you're responsible--cautious, really--and that you tone down your rhetoric. I asked Senate majority leader Bill Frist last week when he plans to schedule a vote on a ban on gay marriage. He has no plans at the moment, Frist said. Rather, it depends on whether the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruling in favor of gay marriage leads to "continued destruction of the traditional definition" of marriage. Bush, like Frist an opponent of gay marriage, was equally restrained in a White House statement that deplored the Massachusetts decision. Instead of exploiting same-sex marriage as a wedge issue, Frist and Bush were, well, responsible.

A governing majority stresses legislative achievement. It doesn't merely obstruct. That task is now left to Democrats, notably Daschle. A party with a governing mentality must be prepared to take ownership of even imperfect but popular legislation. Why? Because that produces results in response to a public desire. If there are problems with a bill, the governing majority is in a position to deal with those later. This, of course, is the rationale for backing the Medicare legislation with an expensive new entitlement while offering only minimal reform and few cost-saving measures.

What's more, a governing majority seeks fresh allies to improve the likelihood of enacting legislation, help broaden the party's base, and assure the perpetuation of its majority. Such was the reason for forging an alliance with AARP on Medicare and a drug benefit. Gingrich actually began wooing AARP when he successfully slowed the growth of Medicare in the mid-1990s, and his successor as House speaker, Dennis Hastert, followed up by forging a close relationship with the 35-million-member organization's leader, Bill Novelli, and chief lobbyist, John Rother. AARP's opposition would surely have doomed the Medicare bill. At the very least, its non-hostility was necessary. AARP's endorsement was a bonus credited to Hastert. Democrats? They sounded the same sour message that many Republicans did a decade ago: AARP sold out to further its own financial interests, such as selling insurance. This was the complaint of a non-governing minority.

When Gingrich addressed the House Republican caucus last week, he lauded the Medicare bill as the work of a governing majority with a long-term view of politics and policy. He got a standing ovation and prompted House members to chant, "Vote, vote, vote." The key to being a governing majority, he said, is "you take half a loaf and go back to the bakery in the morning." If Republicans deliver a drug benefit, "who do you think AARP is going to sit down with in January" to discuss further modernization and reform of Medicare? Not Daschle. And the political benefits of the issue are wonderful, too. By opposing the bill, House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi "is doing to Democrats what [Democratic leaders] Bonior and Gephardt did in 1994," when Republicans won 52 House seats, Gingrich said.

We'll see about that. In the meantime, behaving as a governing majority has a cost. M. Stanton Evans, the conservative writer, used to say that our people--conservatives--cease being our people when they get in a position of power. There's an element of that here, particularly in Republicans' eagerness to compromise. You don't have to be a libertarian to believe that inventing a prescription drug entitlement clashes with the idea of limited government. The assumption by Republicans that they'll get stronger reforms, even significant privatization, of Medicare later by working with their new best friend, AARP, is dubious. AARP is a staunch defender of traditional government-run Medicare. With a drug benefit in hand, AARP may balk at further reform.

The biggest worry about a Republican governing majority is that it won't act as a conservative majority. Gingrich says the goal is to be a "Reaganite governing majority." But on Medicare, the Reaganite part was small. The promise of free-market competition under Medicare was delayed until 2010 and then limited to a trial run in six cities over six years. A lot can happen before then, including the election of a Democratic president (in 2008) bent on eliminating any tinge of privatization. If the drug benefit bill is the model of success by a governing majority, the passage of almost any sort of legislation is fine so long as conservatives get a few concessions.

The real test of the Republican majority will come next year and in 2005. White House officials insist the president will campaign for reelection on Social Security reform. Democrats will answer that he wants to privatize the entire Social Security system and jeopardize benefits. Bush didn't buckle on this issue in 2000, but he didn't win a majority of the popular vote either. Assuming Republicans retain control of the White House and Congress, will they enact the one Social Security reform that matters, allowing workers to use some of their payroll tax for private investments? If not, a governing majority is a conceit without conservative content.

Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.