The Magazine

The Agony of Victory

It’s the age of anxiety for Republicans.

Dec 26, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 15 • By FRED BARNES
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

The thrill is gone. Enthusiasm fired by the Republican sweep in the 2010 election has faded as fear of blowing the opportunity to defeat President Obama in 2012 has grown. Republican control of the House has produced tense relations between GOP leaders (plus many members) and conservative groups upset that Republicans haven’t achieved more. Oh, the agony of victory!

Photo of all the Republican presidential candidates

Republicans in Congress agree on just about everything: repeal of Obamacare, entitlement reform, tax reform to broaden the base and reduce tax rates, serious cuts in domestic spending, no deep reductions in defense spending, right-to-life issues.

Yet success depends on the ouster of Obama. There’s no doubt he’s ripe for defeat, given the facts on the ground. Republicans, independents, and many Democrats regard him as weak and barely competent. The economy, the job market, the housing sector, and government finances are in pathetic shape. And his support among demographic groups that backed him in 2008, except for African Americans, has dwindled.

So you might think Republicans would be optimistic and excited, and initially they were. Now anxiety is setting in, based on the assessment that none of the Republican presidential candidates has a better than even chance of defeating Obama. And if these candidates can’t inspire Republicans, how can they arouse independents and swing voters?

Polls show they aren’t. A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll last week found the two Republican frontrunners, Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney, facing “large majorities” of independents and Hispanics solidly against them. Should this situation continue, Gingrich or Romney would have difficulty beating Obama.

Okay, it’s early. For the past six months, the Republican candidates have been tied down in nationally televised debates in which they quibble with each other. The nominee who emerges will be able to make Obama and his record the central issue of the election, and win. At least that’s the hope.

By the way, Republican prospects of capturing the Senate have taken a slight dip too. Democrats have 23 seats at stake next year, Republicans just 10. Fundraising has favored Democratic candidates so far. And North Dakota’s open Democratic seat is no longer regarded as a slam dunk for Republicans with the announcement by Democrat Heidi Heitkamp, a director of Dakota Gasification Company and former state attorney general, that she’ll challenge Republican Rick Berg. Democrats currently hold the Senate, 53-47.

Among House Republicans, the Heritage Foundation has always been seen as a conservative ally. But they don’t feel as warmly toward Heritage’s new and very aggressive lobbying arm, Heritage Action (HA). There’s no disagreement on issues, only tactics. HA, led by 29-year-old Michael Needham, believes Republicans have settled for less than they could have gotten, especially in spending cuts, in negotiations with Democrats.

Heritage lobbyists have urged Republicans to defeat a handful of bipartisan compromises endorsed by House GOP leaders, including the increase in the debt limit in August. HA would support the increase, Needham declared, if substantial spending cuts or reforms, like funding Medicaid through block grants to states, were attached. HA believed the cuts were too meager and lobbied against increasing the debt limit.

But it’s how HA determines its ratings of House members’ voting records that has particularly irritated Republicans. One reason conservatives have gotten lower ratings than they expected: HA includes votes on minor issues and sponsorship of legislation in determining its rating.

Heritage Action cited four bills on which it considered cosponsorship to be critical. Those who declined to sign on—the bills dealt with welfare, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, education, and energy—got a negative score.

Republican leaders have complained directly to Heritage president Ed Feulner and other Heritage officials about HA. Republican representative Geoff Davis of Kentucky attacked HA publicly as “a worthless organization to the conservative movement.” But Feulner has stood by it.

HA was not created as a cheerleader for Republicans in Congress. Rather, it applies pressure on the assumption that strong conservative legislation won’t pass otherwise. Needham says HA wants Republicans to “live up to the message of the 2010 election.”

Another source of friction is RedState, an influential conservative outfit that promotes primary challenges of congressional Republicans it deems insufficiently conservative. Its top target in 2012 is Fred Upton of Michigan. Erick Erickson, RedState’s boss, cites Upton’s relatively low HA rating.

Going after Upton is both divisive and childish. As chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Upton has been one of the Republican surprises of 2010, a stalwart on important conservative initiatives on health care, energy, and the environment.

When Majority Leader Eric Cantor issued a list of 10 measures to curb regulatory excess, all 10 had come from Upton’s committee, including bills to prohibit the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating greenhouse gases and to force it to withdraw regulations on boilers, cement facilities, and utilities.

Would Obama have taken overregulation of ozone off the table if Upton hadn’t gone after the EPA with such vigor? Not likely. Erickson said Upton, as a member of the bipartisan supercommittee, “seem[ed] hellbent on raising your taxes.” Yet he backed a cut in individual and corporate tax rates and opposed any tax hike at all.

Upton has been blamed for passage of the lightbulb bill in 2007 that requires replacement of incandescent lights by compact fluorescent bulbs. In truth, the Energy and Commerce Committee passed the bill overwhelmingly by a voice vote, including Upton’s.

When he became chairman this year, Upton promised to repeal the bill. While it appeared nothing would happen in 2011, Upton worked quietly to avoid alarming environmental groups with clout on Capitol Hill. “Our eye was on the prize,” a committee staffer says.

The prize was won. In the bipartisan spending bill for 2012, enforcement of the law on lightbulbs was banned. So save your old incandescent bulbs and expect to find more of them on sale again. A small Republican victory, for sure, but also reason for good cheer and less fretfulness among Republicans.

Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.

Recent Blog Posts

The Weekly Standard Archives

Browse 19 Years of the Weekly Standard

Old covers