Everybody Likes a Good Hanging
The GOP risks making rash and unwise decisions in their leadership elections.


John O’Sullivan

Tomorrow’s elections for the GOP House leadership have evoked a burst of passionate electioneering in the conservative blogosphere. There has been more than a touch of puritanism about this — apparently the House GOP must clean house, do penance for its neglect of principles, show the world it has “changed,” and live a chaste and obedient life in the future.

All this is very edifying, of course. I look forward to meeting Republican congressmen in the coming weeks, doubtless standing outside bars handing out improving pamphlets to those tempted to enter. But there is a telling lack of specificity and purpose about all this. After the hymn-singing and confessions, the preachers can only come up with the pious injunction to dismiss John Boehner and Roy Blunt from the leadership.

No one suggests that either man is especially responsible for the sins of the last congress. There were collective sins, it is generally (and unavoidably) agreed, which were committed by almost all and shunned by very few. But the collective of sinners is now urged to obtain forgiveness by fixing the guilt on B&B — or, as the more discriminating accusers suggest, either one B or the other — and driving them out of the leadership into the congregation, where there is much wailing and gnashing of teeth.

In other words:  Let’s find a scapegoat or two and hang them for our sins.

Well, we all like a good hanging. But that has already been staged by the departure of Speaker Denny Hastert. He was the House GOP’s leader. He has been its public face for the best part of a decade. And now he has very decently ambled off into oblivion.

Insofar as there is some strong need for a scapegoat to show the GOP’s repentance to the outside world, that need has now been met. Hastert’s departure fulfilled it well because a good many people knew who he was and what he did.

That’s an important part of a scapegoat’s job description. Anonymous scapegoats simply don’t fit the bill. Faithful C-Span viewers may possibly be able to identify John Boehner more or less; but I doubt that one in ten Americans knows Roy Blunt’s name, let alone his features.

Once we eliminate scapegoating as the aim of these elections, we are left with four able and decent guys, all pretty well conservative, competing for two jobs. The questions that then arise are not of the “whom should we hang first?” variety, but rather: Who is best suited to the specific jobs? Where do they stand on the future issues facing the House and GOP? And who will best represent the House GOP in relations with the governing Democrats, the Senate, and the White House?

Take the job of minority leader now sought by Boehner and Mike Pence. Even Boehner’s critics agree that he is good at this sort of thing– and especially good at being the House GOP’s public face. He held the Majority leadership job for a short time, but in the eyes of most people, including apparently his colleagues, he did it well. The party’s collective sins long pre-date his arrival. Admirers of Pence may reasonably support him because of his positive qualities — largely his position on spending — but there seems no case for defenestrating Boehner. And if good service is a factor in the vote, there is a strong case for keeping him.

Blunt is similarly placed. A whip’s job is essentially a backroom one; he calculates the votes and ensures that the party obtains its objectives. Blunt has done that well. If you don’t like the GOP’s recent objectives — with one important exception, I don’t myself — then blame the party not the whip, the organ-grinder not the monkey, Hastert and Bush rather than Blunt.

Shadegg is a good man too. But his manifesto on yesterday’s NRO was stronger on uplift than on practicalities. Compare and contrast it with Blunt’s manifesto (quoted at length in the Corner yesterday), which laid out a serious strategy for blocking the new Democrat majority — namely, make them choose daily between their left-wing Pelosi leadership and their conservative constituents. That’s exactly right — and Blunt has the experience to implement it.

Once again, Shadegg’s abilities make the case for him. But there is no case as such for ousting Blunt and a strong argument for suggesting that he is better suited to the whip’s job than anyone else at this stage.  

Second question:  Where do they stand on future issues? Well, they pretty much agree on most issues. But there is one looming issue which threatens to be a potential catastrophe for the GOP — namely, the president’s desire to push through his amnesty-plus-guest-worker law, even if it is done with Democratic votes (and so with further concessions to the Democrats in the legislation) against Republican opposition. That threatens the one principled achievement of the last Republican congress: its defeat of the “comprehensive” amnesty bill and its passage of a border security bill.

Here Boehner and Blunt are more clearly on the right side than their opponents. Boehner had wobbled earlier on effective employer sanctions, but his support for the House immigration bill this last year has been unstinting and effective.

Pence actually tried to sabotage the House bill with his absurd “compromise” that might be called an amnesty-plus-weekend-trip-home. This was worse than a deception; it was a transparent deception that calls his judgment as well as his reliability into question.

Blunt was even better than Boehner on immigration reform. He supported it strongly and from the start — and he managed the tricky job of maintaining the House GOP’s unity behind it in the face of attempts to divide them by the Democrats, the Senate, and the White House. Shadegg is fine on the issue itself; but the task at hand seems to call for Blunt’s particular experience and skills.

That leaves the question of representing the House GOP to the Democrats, the Senate, and the White House in future. Given the president’s choice of Mel Martinez as chairman of the RNC, it is plain that Bush hopes to fashion a strategy of working with a “bi-partisan” majority of most Democrats and a minority of Republicans to advance an agenda that would start with immigration reform and go on to other issues.

He achieved this in the U.S. Senate this last year because he had a Republican majority led by Senator Frist, whom the White House had helped put in place by aiding the blogosphere in its successful attempt to defame and defenestrate Trent Lott. 

Well, Dracula has risen from the grave! Trent Lott was re-elected this week in part because GOP senators know that Lott was lynched for a crime he never committed — and in part because they recognize that the White House was able to manipulate their majority more easily under Frist than under Lott. The Bush White House, then and now, clearly has different priorities (to put it mildly) from the congressional GOP.

House GOP voters should take note. They should think about whom the White House would like to see working with Mel Martinez, Harry Reid, and Nancy Pelosi to advance the president’s bi-partisan agenda — and then vote for the other guy.

John O’Sullivan is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington and editor-at-large of National Review.  He is the author of The President, the Pope, and the Prime Minister: Three Who Changed the World.