Seizing the Moment – Or Not | | 05.23.10

The question around Washington this past week – in the air, even when it wasn’t on the lips – was, will the Republicans make the same mistake the British Conservative’s made?  Will they fall short of the electoral triumph that appears to be waiting for them?

In a recent Wall Street Journal article (see:, Henry Olsen of the American Enterprise Institute argues that Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair offered a kind of Americanization of Britain, with policies that favored enterprise and mobility, saying to the British people, you are not subjects; you are citizens.  The newly elected Prime Minister David Cameron, Olsen says, didn’t and still doesn’t understand this fact, which is why he won an only tentative victory, forcing him to agree on making Liberal Democratic Party leader, Nick Clegg, his deputy prime minister.  In other words, the Conservative Party leadership does not understand its own country.

After Rand Paul’s meltdown over his views on the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (for pity’s sake), the question has arisen, have too many elements of the GOP failed to understand their country, or even their congressional districts and states?

For years, the GOP’s national leadership has been all but clueless about the disenchantment growing around the nation.  But now, in talks with senior Republicans around town and beyond, I increasingly sense that the message of 2006 and 2008 is sinking in.  Not with everyone, but among the more astute. They understand that the GOP Congresses of George W. Bush’s presidency and the President himself totally dropped the tax and spending ball, and this is why voters turned them out.

In many respects, those who switched from Bush in 2004 to the Democrats in 2006 and 2008 and are now returning to the Republicans share the concerns of Henry Olsen’s swing vote in Britain.  They highly prize individual autonomy and enterprise.  They are emphatically citizens, not subjects, and are showing themselves to be super sensitive to what they see as Obama Administration moves to subject them to the whims of an overreaching government.  More broadly, they see astronomical increases in Federal spending (and the taxes that will inevitably go along) and vast expansions of Federal power as threats to the national character, in particular to democratic self-government and the freedom to chart one’s own course in life.  Increasingly, as I say, the most astute leaders in Congress understand this.

But with Rand Paul’s meltdown, these same leaders are now wondering if the party’s new elements understand other parts of American life, those parts that in one way or another they will need to bring into any winning coalition.  They look not just at Kentucky but at candidates in Colorado and Florida – states Republican Senate candidates should take handily in November.  They worry that the autumn elections will not produce the victories needed to stop the Administration-backed legislation that voters like those who have shown up at Tea Party rallies have mobilized to halt and reverse.

At the same time, I have been hearing nearly opposite worries from party leaders outside of Washington. Not long ago, I attended a small dinner with a young statewide elected official.  It was an off-the-record meeting, so I won’t identify the official beyond saying that this was the kind of person whom critics of Washington would admire. I expect to see this official move to Washington after the current job.

But this state office holder worried not that the party would do too poorly in November but too well.  “We don’t have a program,” this officeholder said.  “We are not ready to take over the government.  We can’t afford to waste another time in control of Congress.”

It was Victor Hugo who so famously said that there is no power on earth equal to an idea whose time has come. In this Sunday’s New York Times, Thomas Friedman wrote (see: of the disappearing room for fiscal error in the United States today. There is much Friedman will never understand (he works for The New York Times after all), but if he has started to grasp this truth, the truth that drives the Tea Party crowd and the American swing vote, if even he understands it, we may be witnessing the arrival of an idea’s time.

Here’s the rub. These past few weeks, I have heard similar worries from GOP leaders inside and outside of Washington, from those who were concerned we wouldn’t do well enough in November and those worried we would do too well.  They all come down to this:  What if our time arrives and, for whatever reason, we aren’t ready?

The British Conservatives were not ready to seize a moment that was begging to be seized.  American Republicans worry that they, too, could fall short in November.

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