CONSERVATIVE Republicans have learned a painful lesson over the last few years. It turns out power isn't all it's cracked up to be.
Republican control of the White House and Congress hasn't resulted in lights being turned off in Cabinet agencies or enormous garage sales of office furniture. Instead, Uncle Sam is still looking like Marlon Brando at the end of his career: bloated, sweaty and slow moving. The GOP has become a Brando-like parody of its former self, reading its lines about cutting government without plausibility or passion.
The rub of it, from a conservative perspective, is that Republican control of the House doesn't equal conservative control. It may not seem that way to liberals who think Joe Lieberman is right wing, but from the vantage point of the conservative movement, GOP dominance has been an enormous disappointment — good judicial appointments and tax cuts not withstanding. Our hopeful joy upon the 1994 takeover of Congress was like finding a new pony by the Christmas tree. Now it's more like finding it slumped over dead on top of the presents.
This may be why some of us aren't contemplating the possible, if not probable, Democratic takeover of the House with too much dread. (Losing the Senate would be something else.) Yes, the thought of Nancy Pelosi as House Speaker and John Conyers Jr., Henry Waxman and Alcee Hastings as potential committee chairmen does cause an involuntary gag reflex and a shudder for the future of the republic. And yes, the image of all those Democratic staffers returning to Capitol Hill like the marauding caddies during open-pool hour in "Caddyshack" does churn the stomach.
But what would actually happen? Well, the first thing we'd hear would be the metaphorical snap of the rubber glove as the House prepared to investigate the executive branch with a zeal and thoroughness normally reserved for prison guards who enjoy looking for contraband just a little too much. Subpoenas would fly. Perhaps printers would churn out bills of impeachment.
BUT AS UGLY as some of this might be, the silver lining would be fairly thick. First, as a matter of simple gitchy-goo good government, one has to admit that the executive branch could use an independent audit. Amid the orgy of spending and deal cutting, the GOP-controlled House has largely abdicated its oversight responsibilities. Someone's got to check the receipts.
Second, as a matter of rank partisanship, letting the Democrats run wild could be good for both the GOP and conservatives, as my colleague Ramesh Ponnuru recently pointed out in the New York Times. If you think Americans are itching for change now, wait until they break into hives after two more years of Republican monopoly on power.
But a Pelosi-run House could so horrify voters that it would probably prepare the soil for a Republican presidential candidate in 2008. Pelosi is, if anything, a moderate in the Democratic caucus, but she is indisputably far to the left of the American center, in part because she and her colleagues mistake passionately angry bloggers for the mainstream. Letting voters see this crowd try to have its way for two years would only help the GOP in the far more important 2008 election.
Moreover, it could very well boost President Bush's popularity in his final two years — popularity he would need to conduct foreign policy, which tends to dominate the final years of all presidencies.
It's one thing to carp and snipe at the president as the party out of power. It is quite another to use congressional power to hobble a wartime commander in chief. When the economy was strong and the world was deceptively peaceful, perceived Republican overreach kept Bill Clinton's poll numbers up. It's entirely possible that similar behavior — behavior the Democratic base will doubtlessly demand — would have a similar effect on Bush's popularity, especially with troops fighting overseas. A Speaker Pelosi couldn't get left-wing legislation through, and nothing too terrifying could survive in the GOP-run Senate or be spared Bush's veto pen, which, sad to say, still has plenty of ink in it. One exception might be immigration, but that would hand conservative Republicans a dream issue for 2008.
As for Iraq, antiwar liberals also would discover that having a majority within a party is not the same thing as controlling it. Democrats would not be able to force a withdrawal from Iraq, but they'd look even more McGovernite in the process.
I can't quite hope the Democrats win. But I can't bring myself to say I'd like more of the same either. As Henry Kissinger said in 1986 of the Iran-Iraq war: Too bad they can't both lose.
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