At moments like these, as I watch the civil war among the Republican congressional leadership, I’m glad that a long time ago I worked my way through all three volumes of John Julius Norwich’s history of the Byzantine Empire. When was the last bloodless, orderly transition in the Republican leadership? Like the Byzantines (and apparently, according to an e-mailer, like the Klingons, but that’s never been my thing) it’s been all coups, beheadings, indictments and instant resignations, as far as I can tell, going back at least to Newt Gingrich’s victory in the race for Republican whip in 1989. There was the failed coup of 1997, which resulted in at least one coup-plotter, Bill Paxon of New York, being exiled (opening the seat now held by the equally ambitious Tom Reynolds.) There was the successful defenestration of Gingrich in 1998, followed within days by the elimination of his successor, Bob Livingston, by Tom DeLay, who replaced him with the more malleable Denny Hastert. While Hastert recently became the longest-serving Republican Speaker in history, he was also by all accounts the most impotent. When DeLay’s inevitable fall came, it was followed by the unlikely victory of John Boehner -- a throwback to the original Gingrichites -- over a DeLay protege, and an actual ideologue, both of whom remain ready to pounce. Without DeLay, Hastert could not lead on his own, and in the months since DeLay’s resignation, the House has been basically paralyzed (thankfully!) except to pass legislation permitting their president to torture people. As my wife points out -- and she gets out more than I do -- when Republican members of Congress go out to campaign over the next month, they inevitably are asked some version of, "So, you Republicans control both houses of Congress? Why couldn’t you pass something on immigration reform?" And they hate not having an answer to that.
So who knows what happened now? Robert Novak wrote this morning that there has always been "distance" between Reynolds and Hastert. As of last week, Reynolds was perhaps scheming to depose Hastert, by pulling victory in the House races from the jaws of defeat and being "heralded as asavior" -- in Novak’s words. Last week for a moment that seemed possible. Today, Reynolds and his (former) aide Kirk Fordham are succeeding all too well in bringing down Hastert, but will destroy themselves as well. Leaving the Republican campaign committee rudderless, and a leadership election in the spring that has no easy answers. If the Republicans lose, will they let Boehner -- their leader during the annus horribilus -- become minority leader? Will they let whip Roy Blunt, rejected in the last showdown and as shamelessly corrupt as DeLay, remain? What other potential leaders -- such as Conference Chair Deborah Pryce of Ohio -- will themselves lose reelection? If they go outside of leadership, usually it’s with a committee leader, as they tried to do with Livingston, who chaired Appropriations. Oh, too bad -- all their major committee leaders are at risk of indictment at any moment: Jerry Lewis, Duncan Hunter -- or already indicted: Ney, or generally disagreeable: Bill Thomas. (Rules Committee chair David Dreier is still available, but they are still homophobes after all.) The Mike Pence wing of so-called fiscal conservatives could take power, which would only further alienate voters who expect government to do something besides cut taxes.
The big question in my my mind is whether the revelations about Foley were merely the spark that ignited the war within leadership, or whether they were actually a tactical move on the part of some faction. There’s no obvious beneficiary -- certainly not Fordham/Reynolds -- so I can’t flesh out this theory, but maybe when we know more it will make sense.
Much more interesting to me about this leadership crisis is not what it heralds for the election, but what it means for the next era of American politics. I’ve generally operated under the assumption that if the Dems win the House, they actually don’t win much besides subpoena power. (Not that there’s anything trivial about subpoena power, except why would an administration that believes in absolute presidential power obey a subpoena?) I’ve assumed that the narrow Democratic House majority would face off against an extraordinarily disciplined and fierce opposition party, working with the Republicans in the Senate whether minority or not, that would continue to frame the agenda and define the fights much as they did in the early Clinton years. In many ways the modern Republicans are a machine constructed for opposition, and far less effective as a governing party that has to make choices based on consequences. I want the Democrats to win, but I’m terrified of it at the same time. I’m worried that to win they will promise things they intend to "do," but they will not have the power to do anything.
But what happens if the Republican structure is not capable of discipline, if it’s riven by infighting and finger-pointing?? That’s going to be a very different story. If the White House can’t count on loyal and effective allies in the House, even in the minority, they are even more stuck than they already are. Tony Snow’s comments yesterday on the scandal attracted a lot of attention for his dismissal of Foley’s abuse as "naughty e-mails." But there was more to the statement than that. He also basically dismissed Congress entirely, saying "there are a lot of scandals up there," and basically treating Congress as if it was already controlled by another party. Members of Congress think Bush is dragging them down; Bush thinks its Congress dragging him down, and he’s got numbers on his side.
If Bush rejects "Congress" altogether, without regard to party, at some point he has to come back and deal. And if the GOP doesn’t get its act together to form the fierce opposition that protects Bush, then I think there’s a real possibility that Bush and the Senate Republicans have to think about a different approach, a kind end-of-life turn to "triangulation," actually working with the congressional Democratic majority to find some common ground and get things done. That’s still a long-shot, but I’m more optimistic not just about the election, but about the possibility that we don’t have to wait until 2009 for this whole Byzantine approach to politics to come to an end.