GOP House Leaders: Pragmatists, Not Ideologues

President Reagan looks over a speech in the Oval Office. Larry Downing / Sygma-Corbis

In the likely event that Republicans capture control of one or both houses of Congress this week, the new leaders will face a strategic question. Should they pursue the agenda of the Tea Party movement that brought them to power? Or should they try to mollify their party’s base with gestures and symbols, without taking its ideology too seriously? While they’ll never discuss this problem honestly, indications are that the GOP’s congressional leadership will feint right while legislating closer to the center.

The choice is between a Ronald Reagan strategy and a Newt Gingrich strategy. Reagan, who rode a conservative movement to the presidency in 1980, was a master of the right fake. After one brief, disastrous attempt to reduce Social Security spending in 1981, he never seriously challenged federal spending again. But he sounded so convincing in his rhetorical flights that both conservatives and liberals walk around today thinking he cut government. George W. Bush followed the same model, humoring the base while letting government expand.

tea-party-candidates-intro Photos: Tea Party Darlings Tannen Maury

Gingrich, after becoming speaker of the House in 1994, was much more literal-minded. He and the “Contract With America” Republicans made the terrible mistake of taking their own antigovernment rhetoric seriously. They proposed a budget that really would have slashed federal spending on Medicare, Medicaid, education, and the environment. And when Bill Clinton wouldn’t roll over for them, they were willing to shut down the government, which they had convinced themselves everyone else hated as well.

Recent reports in The Wall Street Journal and elsewhere suggest that the future leaders of a Republican House intend to avoid repeating Gingrich’s mistake. The House candidates most likely to win are experienced politicians who understand they’re being handed a gift, not a mandate. They don’t think working with Democrats is evil. On big-picture tax and budget issues, they want to compromise with President Obama.

What makes this plausible is that the House leaders in waiting are, by and large, not an ideological group. John Boehner, the speaker-in-the-wings, could have replaced Monty Hall on Let’s Make a Deal. Kevin McCarthy, who will probably become House whip, is less pickled-looking but similarly pragmatic. Even Eric Cantor, the more ideological likely majority leader, says he has no interest in another government shutdown. By contrast, Mike Pence of Indiana, who advocates a “no compromise” strategy, is considering resigning from the leadership to run for president.

In practice, it may be difficult to discern which tactic congressional Republicans are pursuing. “Repealing” health-care reform, for instance, sounds like a radical step. In fact, voting for repeal would be little more than a gesture, since Obama would veto any such measure. But refusing to fund parts of the health-care bill in the 2012 budget would be a meaningful effort at rollback—and would be likely to provoke a high-stakes showdown.

One can already see an antagonism emerging between the GOP’s congressional and presidential wings. The congressional wing, seeking to retain in 2012 the swing seats it picks up this year, will incline toward symbolic action. The presidential wing, trying to capture the Tea Party activists in a primary season, will argue for a frontal challenge to spending. If congressional leaders show moderation, they can expect to be accused of selling out by Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin. But they are likely to back off nonetheless, because draconian cuts in social spending, especially in an anemic economy, would be politically suicidal.

Why does antigovernment ideology work as an electoral strategy but fail as a governing one? In The New York Review of Books, Michael Tomasky offers a persuasive explanation. In broad terms, the American public likes Republican themes of liberty and small government better than Democratic themes of compassion and fairness. But when it comes to the specifics, the situation is reversed. Democratic programs like Social Security and Medicare retain broad popular support; conservative cuts in programs provoke antagonism. Thus conservatives prefer to debate philosophy, while liberals would rather argue about programs.

This conundrum makes it difficult for Democrats to connect their policies to their beliefs. Conversely, it makes it hard for Republicans to follow through on their ideas. We’ll see what the GOP does with another opportunity to put them into practice.

Jacob Weisberg is chairman of the Slate Group and author of  The Bush Tragedy and In an Uncertain World: Tough Choices from Wall Street to Washington.