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Rites of Initiation

Will the freshman Republicans earn ‘strange new respect’?

Nov 29, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 11 • By FRED BARNES
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The newly elected House Republicans, that hardy band of conservatives, are in for a rude surprise. But not yet. The press and other branches of the Washington establishment will treat them as refreshing idealists for a few more weeks. But early next year, the tone will change and the Republican newcomers will learn that Washington doesn’t like them at all.

Rites of Initiation

Photo Credit: AP, Harry Hamburg

They’ll notice the change because the positive feedback will abruptly turn negative. They’ll be cast as conservative ideologues keen on turning back the clock, aiding the rich, hurting the poor, and much worse. The same story unfolded after Republican landslides in 1946 and 1994.

It’s quite tolerable in Washington to talk a conservative game, as the new Republicans do so well. But to play a conservative game, to enact conservative policies—that’s different. That’s serious, and it’s no secret how Washington will react. The welcome mat will be pulled away. The press will begin roughing up the newcomers. And the establishment—the permanent bureaucracy, lobbyists, consultants, leftovers from earlier administrations and long-forgotten sessions of Congress, flacks, policy entrepreneurs—will loudly express its disapproval. 

Washington is a liberal town or, if you wish, a center-left town. It’s been that way since the 1930s. It treats conservatives, which means most Republicans, like kids. They are to be seen, sometimes heard, and always opposed when they try to put their plans into practice.

Over the decades, Washington has perfected the seduction of conservative Republicans. It doesn’t involve money, gifts, or free lunches. It relies on the strong undertow in Washington that tugs politicians to the left. When a conservative succumbs, he or she is granted “strange new respect,” as conservative writer Tom Bethell dubbed the phenomenon. With it come prestige and acceptance in Washington’s eyes. This can be intoxicating.

The American Spectator magazine takes note each year of a prominent migrant from right to left. In 2009, it designated Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina as winner of the Strange New Respect Award. Prior winners: John McCain, Alan Simpson. The award, just to be clear, is not a compliment.

It will be easy for members of the Republican class of 2010 to win the award. The simplest way is to vote against conservative bills. A sure-fire approach is to submit to the Washington Post or New York Times an article criticizing other members of the 2010 class as too conservative. Chances are, it will appear on the op-ed page the next day.

Those who don’t drift to the left are relegated to a life of being dissed in Washington. The more they stick to their conservative guns, especially on social issues, the more they’ll be criticized. Proof of this? Check out the way Washington regards Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina and Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota.

Washington is reactionary. It dislikes change, except for the more-of-the-same type championed by President Obama. Conservative change aimed at smaller government, less spending, and reduced power to Washington—forget it. Conservatives who support that sort of change will be hammered.

The agenda of the 2010 freshmen is directly at odds with what Washington worships: big government. It’s the mother’s milk of prosperity and pride in the capital. The bigger the federal government, the more discretionary power in the hands of Washington officialdom, the higher the self-esteem of the entire town. Also, the more lobbyists.

Washington has a set of attitudes bound to set a zealous Republican’s teeth on edge. For instance, since Washington believes it knows best, the old hands in town figure the new members of Congress should reach out to them for advice. This won’t happen. If conservatives seek expertise, they’re likely to go to conservative think tanks like Heritage, Cato, and the American Enterprise Institute.

As silly as it sounds, Washington social life is important to the political class. If the new arrivals don’t take part, and they won’t, their disrespect will be noticed. Republicans, for the most part, don’t uproot their families and move them to Washington. Instead, they go home on weekends to see them, skipping social events in Washington.

Then there’s Washington’s deep resentment over attacks on the town. These are a staple of Republican campaigns and many Democratic campaigns as well. The rub is that conservatives actually believe what they say. The Washington crowd, including the press, assumes they must know better. At least the Republicans could wink to indicate they do. I suspect few will.

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