While America’s lenses and eyeballs were focusing on this week’s Republican presidential mega-debates, the party’s perpetually beleaguered House and Senate leaders were back in the shadows of the Capitol, struggling to bring common sense to the chaos within their now-fratricidal party.
Whether House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell succeed, or just flail and fail, could be as important to their party’s fate as any debate happening.
For the Republican Congress’s tea party faction is threatening to force not just one, but maybe two new politically disastrous and economically wasteful government shutdowns. The last time tea party conservatives tried that, in 2013, Americans blamed the Republicans big-time when they couldn’t get the government services they needed. And Standard & Poor’s, the credit rating agency, estimated the 2013 shutdown siphoned $24 billion out of the U.S. economy.
Boehner and McConnell know that even if rebelling anti-abortion Republicans can shut down the government, they will never succeed in forcing President Barack Obama and congressional Democrats to end federal funding for Planned Parenthood. Nor will a shutdown get Democrats to agree to halt the routine raising the nation’s debt limit. It could, however, recklessly plunge the United States into default.
GOP insiders worry that Boehner and McConnell seem overmatched as they struggle to stop a stampede of the herd they are supposed to be leading. Some House tea party members talk about moving to unseat Boehner as speaker.
When the GOP captured the Senate in 2014, McConnell and Boehner promised they would prove at last that Republicans can be the party of good governance. So far, Republicans have excelled at the lost legislative martial art of blocking the small stuff. Example: Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, fuming at Obama’s ability to stave off veto-proof defeat of his Iran nuclear deal, has arbitrarily blocked all State Department appointments. One he blocked was the confirmation of the head of the Agency for International Development. That good governance move kept the agency leaderless during the tragic Syrian refugee crisis.
Meanwhile, Republicans talk about immigration and Hispanics in ways that Hispanics understandably find offensive. This is happening while party strategists search for a way to win future elections in Texas, Arizona and other states where Hispanic populations are soaring. And the Republican presidential front-runner has crudely disparaged women, the swing bloc that has keyed Democratic presidential victories.
So what does the once-but-no-longer-Grand Old Party need to do to survive as a major party?
Clearly, its leaders need a leader. Boehner and McConnell need a leader who can actually inspire Republicans in ways they cannot — someone who can get the Republican Congress to start functioning as something more than Beltway speedbumps and governance roadblocks.
The late conservative icon Jack Kemp, the former Buffalo Bills quarterback who served 18 years in Congress and then was secretary of Housing and Urban Development, was indeed the ideal prototype for today’s GOP.
Kemp promoted supply-side economic policies and sponsored enterprise zones for economic growth. And he proudly proclaimed himself a “bleeding heart conservative” who enthusiastically championed success for minorities. He would never have mused, as Mitt Romney was infamously recorded doing, about “47 percent of the people … who are dependent upon government … who pay no income tax. … and so my job is not to worry about those people.”
Kemp, ever conservative, also made their causes his, too.
Last March, it was not just sad but pathetic that no Republican presidential hopefuls cared enough to go to Selma, Ala., to honor the 50th anniversary of the “Bloody Sunday” massacre of peaceful civil rights demonstrators. President Obama and former President George W. Bush were there. But, shamefully, Boehner and McConnell were no-shows.
Kemp, who died of cancer in 2009, would have been marching in the vanguard of the survivors of that Bloody Sunday. Interestingly, one prominent present-day Republican leader did attend — House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif. If Boehner retires after next year as many expect, McCarthy deserves to become the new House speaker.
Now, as for the Grand Old Party’s future: Can the Republican Party reform its callous, cold-hearted image and uncaring ways? I once asked that question of a committed Republican who is also one of Washington’s savviest lobbyists. Yes, he said, adding:
“In this case it doesn’t take a village. It takes a leader.”
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Martin Schram, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, is a veteran Washington journalist, author and TV documentary executive. Readers may send him email at [email protected]