A Republican senator doubts his party can govern

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Article Highlights

  • Most Republicans in Congress don't fall into the hard-liner category.

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  • When you have to fight losing battles, make sure that your allies know that’s what you’re doing.

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  • Republicans might still take the Senate next year.

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It’s the day after Congress voted to fully reopen the federal government and raise the debt ceiling. The senator I’m meeting, who would fall roughly in the middle of the Senate’s Republicans if they were lined up by ideology, voted with the majority. “I’m being shredded by the Tea Party radio people today,” he says, although he doesn’t seem concerned about it. “That is what it is.”

His bigger concern: He doesn’t think that his party is ready to govern the country.

The Republicans who were in the public eye during the shutdown have generally been either the party’s top congressional leaders or its most vocal hard-liners. Most Republicans in Congress don’t fall into either category. This senator -- who requested anonymity so he could describe the party’s problems candidly -- is part of that less-high-profile contingent. My impression is that his views are widely shared within it.

He never thought that Republicans should demand that Congress defund President Barack Obama’s health-care plan as the price of keeping the government open or raising the debt ceiling. When Tip O’Neill was speaker of the House, the senator observes, Democrats could have tried to use the same tactics to force President Ronald Reagan to repeal the tax reform he had signed or, for that matter, the postwar law that allowed “right to work” states. They would have lost, too. “You don’t have to be a defeatist to be able to count.”

When your party doesn’t hold the White House, he says, “You should do your best to find fights you can win.” And when you have to fight losing battles, make sure that your allies know that’s what you’re doing. A lot of conservatives, he thinks, were misled about what a partial government shutdown could achieve.

Some conservative groups, he says, also took a novel approach in demanding that elected officials share not only their policy goals but also their tactics, and treating disagreement over tactics as a betrayal of principle. Their efforts sometimes produced amusing results. The senator’s office got phone calls urging him to vote against “keister” and “cluster” rather than cloture, for instance, and to “stand with Tom Cruise,” presumably meaning Senator Ted Cruz.

The dysfunction of the last few weeks won’t seriously hurt the Republicans’ chances of taking the Senate next year, in his judgment. But it certainly won’t help. He notes that three Senate candidates -- Tom Cotton of Arkansas, Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia and Steve Daines of Montana -- were among the 87 House Republicans who voted to reopen the government. He thinks that all three still have a good shot at winning in 2014, but not quite as good as they did before the shutdown.

He also expresses a deeper anxiety. At a Senate Republican lunch the day of the vote, someone mentioned that the party wasn’t ready to run the Senate: If Republicans had held a majority in both the House and the Senate, they wouldn’t have been able to pass anything in either chamber. The senator thinks such a turn of events would have been “incredibly damaging.”

He heard a similar sentiment from the other chamber of Congress: House Republicans from his state have told him how much happier some of their colleagues would be if they were in the minority and could just lob spitballs at the Democrats. “We have to really think how we become the governing party,” he says.

By contrast, he says, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell originally had “a realistic strategy” on the budget, one that accurately gauged how much Republicans could achieve. “It was not a go-to-the-moon strategy, but we don’t have enough fuel to get to the moon.”

The questions that his colleagues need to ask themselves, the senator says, are “What have we learned?” and “How do we not repeat this?” Most Republican senators, it seems to me, emerged from the shutdown fight with the same views they had going in. Those who thought it was a mistake found confirmation of their views in the party’s sagging poll numbers and lack of accomplishments; those who favored it thought it could have worked if the skeptics hadn’t sabotaged it.

Republicans might still take the Senate next year. They are lucky that control depends on state-by-state contests, and not on voters’ weighing whether they think the party should run the Senate -- or has the capacity to do it.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg View columnist, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a senior editor at National Review.

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