Tyler Bilbo, Columnist
Ideology: Yellow Dog Democrat | Writing from: Washington, D.C.
If Republicans retake the Congress, their majority will be unsustainably fragile.
Four years ago, Democrats were poised to control the Congress for the first time in over a decade. With only 15 seats needed to flip the House, control of at least one chamber appeared inevitable. I was ecstatic. For the first time in my politically cognizant life, control of Congress would be wrested away from a group of conservative Republicans that I had come to abhor.
In all of the excitement, however, I vividly remember the defeatist insight of former House Majority Whip, Tony Coelho. Coelho, a well respected Democrat who championed the Americans with Disabilities Act, warned that the prospect of a narrow Democratic majority could backfire. According to Coelho, a seemingly unsolvable debacle in Iraq and a general disaffect with Washington would ascribe a narrow Democratic majority with a level of responsibility for a mess that they did not create. Furthermore, the slim majority that would likely rest on the fortunes of conservative Democratic challengers, making it impossible to significantly change the status quo.
As Republicans look to depose Speaker Pelosi this November, I’m reminded of Coelho’s reservations about a slim Democratic majority. For the time being, the economy remains irreversibly bad, and the narrow majority that Republicans hope to claim would only increase the GOP’s responsibility for our economic woes.
The challenges that would present a Republican Congress, however, are not restricted to this relatively common predicament for opposition parties in a difficult economy. Despite the party’s recent ascendance in the polls, the Republican brand remains severely damaged as fiscally conservative former Republicans increasingly self-identify as Independents. Unless the GOP can sufficiently rebrand itself to entice these former Republicans back into the party, the party’s control of Congress will be unsustainably fragile.
The Tea Party movement is the most visible collection of this enthused demographic, and while the majority of these voters are registered Republicans, they tend to reject partisan labels. A mountain of polling from the Pew Research Center displays this phenomenon of “debranded” Republican voters who have contributed to a surge in self-identified Independents. This empirically verifiable data corresponds with a drastic increase in self-identified conservatives, and Pew’s research confirms that these voters are driven by the fiscal issues that are at the center of the Tea Party movement.
Although these voters will turn out in droves this November, their soft support for Republicans presents a long-term problem for the GOP that escaped victorious Democrats in 2006 and 2008. Unlike the voters who opted for Democratic candidates in the past two election cycles, this critical demographic of conservative Independents demands purity. The defeats of conservative incumbents like Congressman Bob Inglis and Senator Bob Bennett reflect the extent to which this demographic demands flawless fiscally conservative policies.
This willingness to pursue Republicans who are not perfect fiscal conservatives is a testament to the partisan independence of this demographic of “debranded” Republicans. While liberal Democratic leaders pragmatically united around moderate and conservative challengers in 2006, a radically conservative reaction to the bad economy is fueling this year’s Republican insurgency.
If Republicans are responsive to the radical demands of these “debranded” Republicans, they will usher in some of the most drastic budget cuts in recent history. While the Tea Party points to government policies in this recession as an awakening to their fiscally conservative consciences, the fiscal restraint that they demand threatens to enthuse a multitude of constituencies that would be devastated from these proposed cuts. From social security to Medicare and Medicaid, Republican cuts would awaken a sleeping giant that would rally against them. At the end of the day, the GOP needs to remember that the fiscally conservative Independents are a minority in this country. While rewarding this crucial demographic with the policies they demand would decrease the number of Bob Inglises and Bob Bennetts in the party’s future, they would risk alienating the majority of Americans who don’t view spending as an evil element of governing.
The only way Republican control in 2010 can bode well for the party’s long-term success is if the Tea Party drops their demands for fiscally conservative purity. Otherwise, Republicans will either awaken their own sleeping giant, or the Tea Party will unravel a level of infighting within the caucus that will make it impossible for them to legislate. All the while, they will assume ownership of a bad economy that they will share with the President. As the next potential Speaker of the House, you can’t help but wonder if John Boehner is asking: Is this worth it?