House Republicans invited a slew of speakers — talk-show hosts, messaging maestros, and aging ex-pols — to their annual retreat last month. They tapped George F. Will, the Pulitzer Prize–winning columnist for the Washington Post, for the keynote address.
Will, a former Washington editor of National Review, did not pontificate as a prophet or futurist. Instead, he came as a historian and journalist, armed with a few small points and a couple of “scintillating jokes.” In a closed-door session, he urged the assembled lawmakers to be acutely aware of the undercurrents that thrust them back into power. But he did not wag his finger.
As we sit alongside Baltimore’s bustling Inner Harbor, Will tells me that this new majority is quite different from the bumptious, Gingrich-led majority of 1994. After three decades in the wilderness, Gingrich’s House Republicans fell victim to triumphalism — but having regained the majority after a mere four years out of power, the Boehner-Cantor Republicans realize how fragile their victory is.
“The leadership has a little more sobriety in it this time,” Will observes. “There is just a degree of seriousness now, that there wasn’t then, about the larger issues confronting the country. What happened in ’94 arose from things like the House bank scandal, disaffection over the crime bill, all that stuff — nothing like [the bailout of] General Motors, the ‘stimulus,’ and quantitative easing.”
House Speaker John Boehner, Will adds, is smartly taking a low-key approach. “You don’t want a congressional leader pretending he is on a par with the president,” he says. “It was one thing for Clay, Webster, and Calhoun to be on a par with some of the mediocre presidents of the first half of the 19th century, when the ethic of presidential power was that you did not speak to the country. We live in an entirely new world. There is no point in a congressman from Cincinnati trying to peg up, because he has a different job, and a really important one.”
The lingering question is whether this rejuvenated GOP crew has “the patience of politics.” While it was surely buoyed by hot Tea Party fervor, its success (or failure), Will notes, will come in how it tangles, not necessarily by what it passes.
For now, of course, the House Republicans’ mandate is limited, with Democrats running the Senate and roosting on Pennsylvania Avenue. But this year, Will says, is by no means a lost cause. Early legislative battles, from Obamacare to the budget, will be important tests of the GOP’s mettle. While Democrats may crow about obstructionism, voters are happy with a “multiplicity of factions” chiming in. “It’s [James] Madison’s country,” he says. “We like it that way.”
“I am aware of all the technical changes and the apparatus of the administrative state that gives the president an entrenched supremacy. I get that,” Will sighs. “Still, Congress does not need to recede quite so much into the wallpaper.”
In this sense, Will says, conservatives expect this band of Republicans not only to fight, but also to remember why they’re back holding the reins. “That is the paradox of American politics,” he says. “We are a relentlessly forward-looking, forward-leaning people, but our politics, when it is serious, always has a retrospective cast.”
Will sees the Tea Party movement as a “classic American story about anxiety over the relationship between the citizen and the central government.” He turns to a book he has recently re-thumbed, American Politics: The Promise of Disharmony (1981) by Samuel P. Huntington, to illustrate the point. Huntington, he recalls, highlights how American politics, while so often driven by interest groups, can be displaced at key junctures by an outburst of “creedal passions.”
According to Huntington, the 1770s, the 1830s with Andrew Jackson, the turn of the 20th century with the progressives, and the 1960s were such moments. “This may be the fifth instance,” Will says. “And this is much more interesting than the Sixties.”
While some impending debates, such as the fracas over extending the debt ceiling, will likely be chock full of “Kabuki dances and gesture politics,” there is a distinct opportunity for House Republicans to reassert themselves, Will says. Disappointments are also to be expected. For those itching to pass Rep. Paul Ryan’s “roadmap” for fiscal reform, which takes on entitlements with vigor, for example, a period of waiting may be in order. “Republicans are rationally hesitant about entitlement programs,” Will says. “They have been burned before.”
“They remember what happened with George W. Bush and the ‘ownership society,’” Will recalls. “Bush, who had just finished a campaign in which he managed not to talk about that, said, ‘Oh, by the way, I want to change the entitlement system.’ The people said, ‘We don’t think so.’ It may be a sign of seriousness that they are not rushing. If I could wave a wand and enact the ‘roadmap,’ I’d do it tomorrow. But we don’t wave wands. The ground has to be prepared.”
Indeed, “one of the things we’ve learned in the last year is that ‘comprehensive’ is hard to do,” Will says as he clasps his hands upon his knee. “Comprehensive immigration reform, comprehensive health-care reform, comprehensive entitlement reform — it’s all too much. The system buckles and creaks and problems start.”
“Politics takes time,” Will concludes, as he gazes toward the Chesapeake ripples. “Obama did not understand that. He just came in and said ‘I’ll do this, that, and the other thing,’ and he ran smack into the DNA of the country’s politics.” For House Republicans, he says, patience will be a virtue.
— Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review. Christina Baworowsky, an intern in NR’s Washington office, contributed to this story.