Ilario Pantano, former sniper, sat in my office, rolling his shirt sleeve back down, after showing me the United States Marine Corps tattoo engraved on his arm. He wasn’t showing off; he was making a point: “If my country is worth dying for, it’s worth fighting for.” Which is what brought him to Washington.
He put his life on the line in the Marines, and now he’s in the embryonic stages of his second run for Congress from North Carolina. Last year he made headway in a district that’s been voting Democratic since Reconstruction. And the problems that called him to duty on the campaign trail have not gone away, and the people who had faith in him still deserve an alternative to their current representation. So Pantano feels that he owes them a second try — and that, with both national-security and economics experience, he owes his country the same.
The tea-party movement, and the constituents of his district who got engaged and have in many cases stayed engaged, are the ground troops. But there are also troops in Washington, D.C., and they need not only support on the home front, but reinforcements.
Pantano represents the reinforcements. Because the guys who want to save the republic — to change the way Washington works, to put the federal government on a life-saving diet, to get government regulation and uncertainty out of the way of the American family, to protect the consciences of Americans who don’t want their money going near abortions — need more votes in Washington.
“I think there was a bit of a grace period granted to the GOP leaders in D.C. But patience is wearing thin,” Teri Christoph, co-founder of Smart Girl Politics, a cyber-tea-party hub, tells me. “We are looking for accountability from our leaders, regardless of party, and if we don’t get it, we’ll make our voices heard. . . . All it takes is inaction in Washington and we’ll be seeing a marked uptick in conservative activism.”
That impatience manifested itself during a “Continuing Revolution” rally held on Capitol Hill on the last day of March. But that impatience can also be heard in the voice of the Speaker of the House. When insisting that the Senate “pass the damn thing” — fund the federal government in a responsible manner — you don’t exactly sound like a Washington elite winking at the country club.
“Baby boomers, my generation, we’ve created a pretty big mess. We’ve made promises to ourselves that our kids and grandkids simply cannot afford. To most politicians, it’s easier just to keep kicking the can down the road or create some toothless commission. If those in charge won’t step up and offer the serious solutions to fix entitlement programs, we need leaders who will. . . . Real leaders work harder than their opponents.”
That was Boehner more than a year ago now. He also said, in that speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference, “I can tell you that a Republican Congress is not going to change the world in two years. We won’t. We can’t. But we can stop the Pelosi–Obama agenda and we can do it quickly. And what we can do is to continue to offer better solutions to the American people to get our country back on track once again.” And we don’t even have a Republican Congress. We only have a Republican House.
Expectations are high. That’s a wonderful blessing. It keeps us working harder and wanting more. But, as frustrating as it is, even as we want as much change as we can get immediately, in every battle there are certain realities about Washington. One of them is: The speaker of the House cannot unilaterally make the will of the House law. This Ohio congressman, who has been a conservative since before many of his impatient fellows were paying attention to who the Speaker of the House was, needs more votes in Washington. He needs a willing Senate. He needs a very willing Senate, since the current president isn’t going to play ball. That’s not to make excuses or make way for complacency. It’s a call to action.
At the same time as the “Continuing Revolution” rally, at least one congressman was on his knees in prayer at a Capitol Hill church. Pro-life activists were continuing their Lenten 40 Days for Life campaign. Praying for courage and prudence and sustenance is not a partisan prayer, but it’s a necessary one in the face of that mess Boehner referenced. It’s a necessary one when the alternative leaders aren’t always obvious and the brokenness that the banality of empty promises has produced makes so many things so difficult. Our hearts will be restless. They should be. They will keep us working harder and keep inspiring us to be better and braver. And they will keep us remembering our friends and loving our enemies. The fruits of the grace of prayer and persistence have been known to produce a convert or two.
“Today we frequently hear it remarked that the privilege of freedom has to be rewon once in every generation — or, say, three or four times a century,” the 20th-century political philosopher Yves Simon wrote. “Even that is too much optimism. Freedom is impregnably assured only by an effort to conquer it which is renewed every day.”
We see that happening — maybe — on the streets of many Arab nations, some of which our media and White House have chosen to support and others of which they haven’t. But we see that, too, in the impatience of many Americans who became engaged in this last election and have stayed engaged since. They have more allies in Congress now. They sent them to Washington. And it’s important to give them support, by not expecting the impossible, and by making sure they have reinforcements. A Pantano in the House. And yet more troops in the Senate. And hope for change on the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online.