In post-elec­tion Wash­ing­ton, the power strug­gle be­gins A

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary - Tony Blank­ley

nd so the in­ter-party strug­gle pauses, if briefly, and the in­tra-party strug­gles be­gin. Af­ter such a pro­found shift of po­lit­i­cal power as re­sulted from last week’s elec­tion, both the win­ning and los­ing par­ties will in­evitably en­ter a pro­longed pe­riod (months, per­haps years) where each party’s fac­tions — both ide­o­log­i­cal and other — and their in­ter­est groups, will strug­gle to gain ad­van­tage and dom­i­nance within their party.

The Repub­li­cans will ar­gue among them­selves why they lost and how to win next time, and the Democrats will ar­gue among them­selves why they won and how to con­tinue win­ning next time. At the same time per­son­al­i­ties in each party will seek to be­come lead­ers (both nom­i­nal, in the con­gres­sional cau­cus lead­er­ship elec­tions, and ac­tual lead­ers of the hearts and minds of their par­ties. The lat­ter cat­e­gory is not re­stricted to sen­a­tors and con­gress­men, but will in­clude party ac­tivists, the­o­reti­cians, gov­er­nors and 2008 pres­i­den­tial as­pi­rants.)

In those in­tra-party ar­gu­ments, logic, rea­son and facts will be tem­pered by fac­tional or per­sonal in­ter­est. For in­stance, in the Demo­cratic Party the cen­trists will ar­gue that they won the elec­tion be­cause of cen­trist can­di­dates; thus they may ar­gue not only for cen­trist pol­icy ini­tia­tives and at least the ap­pear­ance of ges­tures to bi­par­ti­san­ship, but also for some­what re­strained over­sight hear­ings of the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion. Thus, by prov­ing them­selves re­spon­si­ble and mod­er­ate, they will ar­gue, the pub­lic will see the Democrats as ready to lead at the pres­i­den­tial level in 2008. (A plau­si­ble claim.)

The lib­eral, an­ti­war, ac­tivist, In­ter­net-driven base will claim that pas­sion­ate an­ti­war, anti-Bush vot­ers drove the Repub­li­cans out of of­fice. (Also a plau­si­ble claim.) Any­thing less than highly ag­gres­sive over­sight hear­ings (and per­haps rad­i­cal health-care re­form and tax-the-rich leg­is­la­tion), they will ar­gue, will only prove to their elec­torate that the Demo­cratic Party is still the busi­ness-money driven, prin­ci­ple-bank­rupt party it has been since Bill Clin­ton took it over. The Democrats can­not be pow­er­fully par­ti­san on the over­sight hear­ings and si­mul­ta­ne­ously ap­pear to be bi­par­ti­san — as seen ei­ther un­der the dome or in the pub­lic eye.

But Speaker-elect Nancy Pelosi (and the Se­nate Demo­cratic ma­jor­ity leader — as­sum­ing the Se­nate goes Demo­cratic also), even if they de­cide to take the cen­trist path, may not be able to en­force their strat­egy. In the House, the nat­u­ral power re­la­tion­ship is strong com­mit­tee chair­men and weak leader- ship. Through­out the 1970s and the 1990s, pow­er­ful Demo­cratic Party chair­men — the barons — ran roughshod over weak speak­ers, such as Tom Fo­ley. When Newt Gin­grich be­came speaker in 1995, with much ef­fort he was able to cen­tral­ize power in the speaker (and elected lead­er­ship), forc­ing a united Repub­li­can strat­egy on weak chair­men. To do that he had to scrap the se­nior­ity sys­tem and choose com­mit­tee chair­men who would ef­fec­tively and faith­fully carry out the united party strat­egy.

But Mrs. Pelosi has al­ready com­mit­ted to the se­nior­ity sys­tem. A group of older (70-some­thing) hard­core lib­eral men who have been wait­ing a long 12 years to re­gain the power snatched from their hands in 1994 will be very hard, or im­pos­si­ble to rein in. Un­less they in­de­pen­dently agree with the mod­er­ate strat­egy of the thirdway Clin­tonites (Rahm Emanuel, Steny Hoyer, the Demo­cratic Lead­er­ship Coun­cil, etc.) we should ex­pect rough leg­isla­tive and pub­lic im­age man­age­ment chal­lenges for Mrs. Pelosi.

The con­gres­sional Repub­li­cans will have dif­fer­ent but re­lated prob­lems. In the House, Repub­li­cans will ini­tially agree to re­turn to con­ser­va­tive first prin­ci­ples, but will find it hard to do any­thing about it — other than is­sue un­read press re­leases — as they will have no leg­isla­tive power and lit­tle abil­ity to gain any me­dia at­ten­tion. (Even friendly con­ser­va­tive talkra­dio hosts will not want to bore their lis­ten­ers with long dis­cus­sions of Repub­li­can “mo­tions to recom­mit” on ap­pro­pri­a­tion bills that would re­duce spend­ing by 2.7 per­cent. The Democrats will give the Repub­li­cans their one bite at each leg­isla­tive ap­ple on a vote timed for about 10:45 p.m, ev­ery sev­eral weeks or so.)

A be­lated and now in­evitably al­most in­vis­i­ble ef­fort to demon­strate fis­cal pro­bity will lead to a split be­tween the hard-core con­ser­va­tives and the oth­ers who may get tempted to join Demo­cratic leg­is­la­tion when they can — to “get credit” with the pub­lic for do­ing some­thing. Demo­cratic Party bills rhetor­i­cally of­fer­ing cheap pre­scrip­tion drugs, min­i­mum-wage in­creases, phony en­ergy con­ser­va­tion and other such “soft” lib­eral of­fer­ings will pick up plenty of House Repub­li­can votes.

Be­cause even mi­nor­ity sen­a­tors can still be pow­er­ful forces, the Se­nate Repub­li­cans (hav­ing pre­sum­ably lost four of their strong­est con­ser­va­tives — Rick San­to­rum, Ge­orge Allen, Jim Tal­ent and Con­rad Burns) will be even more in­clined than usual to “leg­is­late” rather than re­turn to first con­ser­va­tive prin­ci­ples.

More mod­er­ate Repub­li­cans in both the House and Se­nate will judge (in­cor­rectly, I be­lieve) that strong Repub­li­can sup­port of tra­di­tional so­cial val­ues con­trib­uted to their down­fall in this elec­tion. Thus the his­toric clar­ity of the Repub­li­can Party on th­ese is­sues cen­tral to Repub­li­can elec­toral suc­cess is in dan­ger of be­ing weak­ened in the next few years.

Ob­vi­ously, Pres­i­dent Bush will be rad­i­cally re­duced in his ca­pac­ity to po­lit­i­cally lead con­gres­sional Repub­li­cans, while 2008 pres­i­den­tial as­pi­rants will emerge to re­place him. (And, as he is now obliged to ne­go­ti­ate with Democrats rather than Repub­li­cans in Congress, the con­gres­sional Repub­li­cans will be fur­ther alien­ated from the pres­i­dent.)

If there are two, three or four cred­i­ble chal­lengers, con­gres­sional Repub­li­cans will tend to group around each and echo their themes and mes­sages — thus fur­ther di­vid­ing the unity and dif­fus­ing the clar­ity of the Repub­li­can mes­sage com­ing out of Wash­ing­ton. If Sen. John McCain (or any­one else) emerges early as the likely 2008 pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nee, he will be­come, de facto, the tit­u­lar head of the Wash­ing­ton branch of the Repub­li­can Party. Be­cause Repub­li­cans tend to pre­fer party or­der to chaos, there may well be an in­stinct to get, ef­fec­tively, the pres­i­den­tial pri­mary process over very quickly — a fac­tor which might re­dound to Mr. McCain’s fa­vor.

In fu­ture col­umns I will write on the fate of our Iraq pol­icy in a Wash­ing­ton world turned up­side down. It won’t be pretty.

Tony Blank­ley is edi­to­rial page ed­i­tor of The Times. He can be reached at tblank­ley@wash­ing­ton­

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