Even more important to conservatives than what happens in next Tuesday’s elections is what happens later this month when Republicans vote to elect their new Congressional leadership. While the first election will determine what party is in charge, the second will signal what course the Republican Party will take in the future.
This election year, conservatives have been in agreement that the Republican Party has abandoned its principles to maintain its grip on power. The big disagreement has been over whether it would be better for the future of conservatism if Republicans lost the election and learned a lesson, or if they were put back in power, and then urged to change afterward.
Whether Republicans lose handily in next Tuesday’s elections or defy the experts and hang on to both chambers by a razor-thin margin, the party will face a choice. They can either remain the party of Washington, or they can once again become the party of limited government. There is one bold move that Republicans can make to signal to conservatives that they are ready to change for the better: make Rep. Mike Pence their House leader.
“I believe that as a movement we have veered off course into the dangerous and uncharted waters of big government Republicanism,” Pence is fond of saying, and he should know. The congressman was elected in 2000 along with President Bush and has been witness to the largest expansion of government since the presidency of Lyndon Johnson.
Speaker Dennis Hastert may have publicly vowed to run for his leadership post again, but while it was one thing to stand firm and dismiss calls to resign in the wake of the Mark Foley scandal that broke so close to the election, after nearly eight years of presiding over runaway spending and a scandal-tainted House, he has become part of the Washington establishment. After Tuesday, it will be time for him to go. The House is scheduled to choose its leaders on November 15, but that could change depending on the outcome of the midterm elections (especially if the outcome of some races is still uncertain).
In his three terms in office, Pence has waged an often lonely battle to return the party to its roots by fighting the spending that has become the hallmark of the current group that calls itself Republican. He has stood by his principles even though it often meant a backlash from within his own party. Pence is one of only a few dozen Republican congressmen to vote against both the No Child Left Behind Act and the Medicare prescription drug benefit.
When Republicans moved to respond to Hurricane Katrina last fall, the Pence-led Republican Study Committee proposed $800 billion in spending cuts over 10 years to help offset the cost of the relief efforts and rebuilding. But the Republican leadership blocked the move. It was in the midst of this debate that Tom DeLay made his now infamous statement that there was nothing left to trim from the budget because, “after 11 years of Republican majority we’ve pared it down pretty good.” DeLay deserved to be indicted for that statement alone.
Though the proposal, dubbed Operation Offset, ultimately failed, Pence was still able to lead the push for $40 billion of cuts to entitlements over five years. It may be a mere trifle in the big scheme of things, but it was a rare example of fiscal sanity in the 109th Congress.
Although some would have us believe that Americans want big government, a new CNN poll found that 54 percent of the public “thought it was trying to do too many things that should be left to individuals and businesses,” compared with just 37 percent who said they “thought the government should do more to solve the country’s problems.”
With Pence, conservatives would have a spokesman who could eloquently defend the philosophy of limited government in a manner that’s much less polarizing than Newt Gingrich was in the 1990s.
Should the Republicans pull off an upset on Tuesday, a Speaker Pence would be the ideal person to rehabilitate the party. Should they lose, as minority leader, he would make quite a thorn in the side of Speaker Nancy Pelosi.