When during a particularly bitter Parliamentary debate in 1909 the Liberal Prime Minister Herbert Asquith denounced Conservatives for their “willful, constant, and unyielding opposition” to almost every Government policy, the Conservative leader Arthur Balfour swiftly replied, “May I remind the Prime Minister that the first duty of an opposition is to oppose and when as is now the case Government policies are reckless, feckless, and threatening permanent damage to the country that duty rises to the level of sacred obligation. “
Exactly a century later Republicans should heed the words of Balfour, rather than listen to the GOP’s weak sisters who cringe whenever the liberal media labels them as the “Party of No” and piously sheds crocodile tears at the prospect of a shrunken GOP becoming little more than a regional faction of “angry Southern white men”.
The GOP should also resist the siren song of the “realists” in their ranks whose preachments go something like this: “Look, the Democrats control everything, and Obama is hugely popular. If we don’t work constructively with Democrats on the great changes they’re planning we’ll be left out altogether.” This kind of defeatism harkens back to the bad old days of “Me Too” Republicanism (anyone remember Everett Dirksen and Charlie Halleck?) when the party motto was “We’re for everything the Democrats are for, but we can do it a little cheaper.”
To those wondering whether the GOP can really turn things around politically it is instructive to revisit the Carter Administration.
At that time the American people- greatly put off by Nixon, Watergate etc.- severely punished the GOP in two consecutive elections, and chose as President Jimmy Carter, who promised “change and the end of business as usual.” In Carter’s first year his approval ratings were much higher than Obama’s today, and Democratic majorities in the Senate (62-38) and House (292-143) were also more lopsided than today.
Despite this bleak prospect a cohesive Republican minority aided by skeptical Democrats buried Carter’s plan to enlarge welfare rolls by 50 percent, derailed his nomination of Ted Sorenson as CIA director, sidetracked his plan to withdraw troops from South Korea, and killed his proposal to create a new federal consumer advocacy agency to promote greater regulation of business.
Carter also failed in 1977 and 1978 to win passage of two bills aimed at forcing reluctant workers to join unions and severely penalizing employers who resisted. Though both passed handily in the House, the bills died in the Senate when Democrats from “right to work” states defied their leadership and joined Republicans in defeating six attempts at cloture.
Following the loss of 3 Senate, and 15 House seats in the 1978 elections things got even worse for Carter. Congress rejected his SALT II treaty with the Soviet Union, forced him to increase defense spending, defeated his attempt to impose price controls on hospitals, and we all know what happened in the 1980 elections.
In the last forty years the Democrats have had three Presidents, all of whom were outsiders with little or no experience beyond their home states. All three advanced a radical agenda requiring sweeping legislation, which had the side effect of unifying and galvanizing the Republican minority.
In the case of Carter and Clinton, despite their initially high approval ratings, eventually they alienated significant numbers of their Congressional majority particularly those from the less liberal Southern, Mid-western, and Mountain states who came to see the radical agenda as a real threat to their own re-election.
Already there is abundant evidence that Obama is heading down the same road as his two Democratic predecessors. Exhibit A is the ever expanding fiasco surrounding the issue of Guantanamo which is increasingly making the Obama Administration look like an update of “The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight”.
Caught between Obama’s feckless order to close Guantanamo by year’s end and Gallup Polls showing Americans overwhelmingly opposed to closing Gitmo ( 2 to 1) or accepting any detainees in the USA (3 to 1) Congressional Democrats are rapidly learning that there is absolutely no political downside to bucking a President of their own party when their constituents really dislike what he wants to do.
Rather than being defensive Republicans should be honored that once again History has anointed them as the “Party of No”. As in the past it is a role that can carry them to electoral redemption.
William Moloney was Colorado Education Commissioner, 1997-2007, and is now a Centennial Institute Fellow. His columns have appeared in the Wall St Journal, USA Today, Washington Post, Washington Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, Baltimore Sun, Rocky Mountain News and Denver Post.