Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

The Republicans' Rare Opportunity

James Skillen


December 30, 2002

More than rare, this may be a unique moment in American political history.

Despite serious economic and international uncertainties, President George W. Bush registers high approval ratings in the opinion polls. But not just high ratings; this is a president—just two years into his first term—who helped his party increase its majority in the House of Representatives and take back control of the Senate in the 2002 elections. And that highly unusual achievement came just two years after he won the presidency with fewer popular votes than his rival, Al Gore, under circumstances that required an emergency judgment by the U.S. Supreme Court.

That is only the beginning. Look for a moment at the House of Representatives. Although their majority is small, the Republicans have settled down under the leadership of Speaker Dennis Hastert. Settled down, that is, after the highly combative days of firebrand Newt Gingrich, whose brief period of leadership followed the Republicans return to control of the House in 1994. Hastert is one of those rare, small-ego guys who is trusted as a listener, servant, and deal maker.

And if that is not enough, look at what has happened in the Senate between November's election and today. Not only did the Republicans manage to win back control, but within days of Majority Leader Trent Lott's errant statement, the White House and other Republicans teamed up to force Lott's resignation. Then, with even greater speed, they rallied behind Tennessee's Bill Frist, only in his second term, elevating him to the leader's post by an unprecedented conference call.

What makes Frist unusual? First of all, he is another small-ego guy, who likes to make his mark by bringing others together and solving problems peacefully. Even more unusual, he is very new to politics—from the medical profession—and insists that he will serve only two terms in the Senate and then retire. He is also close to the president, which should mean even smoother cooperation between Congress and the White House. Furthermore, Frist, like Bush and some other younger Republicans, is a new Southerner, a post-segregationist, anti-racist reconciler. Republican leaders may finally be posed to look forward instead of backwards on American race relations.

Add one more thing to these rare Washington circumstances: the Democrats present almost no challenge to the Republican hegemony. No strong presidential contender has yet arisen. No new Democratic ideas have come to light or begun to pick up momentum. Democratic senators can filibuster and force 60-percent votes, but they have now been firmly reseated as the opposition.

Whether Republican or Democrat, one stands amazed, wondering how all of this could have happened. Imagine what the White House and Congress can achieve in the next two—perhaps even six—years!

Yet that is precisely the question. Do Republicans know how to govern? Do they care about governing? For almost 30 years, from the end of the Nixon era, Republicans perfected the art of criticism, of opposing government, of reducing government, of arguing that Democratic programs were a mistake or a failure. Now, suddenly and firmly, the Republicans—with a team of moderate, cooperative leaders—stand almost without opposition in control of the entire federal government.

What will they do? What will the Republicans show us on welfare, health care, and Social Security, on agriculture and trade, on environment and education, on the foreign and defense policy fronts, and on homeland security, while trying to balance income and expenditures to achieve their goals? With the rarest of opportunities, the challenge is now theirs. And voters can offer their assessment in 2004.

—James W. Skillen, President
    Center for Public Justice


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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”