Alexander's Column

Leaders or clerks

Mark Alexander · Dec. 1, 2006

“I sit here all day,” said President Harry S Truman, “trying to persuade people to do the things they ought to have sense enough to do without my persuading them…. That’s all the powers of the President amount to.” Such can be the frustrations of the Oval Office – an office in which one is blamed for most everything, yet unable to accomplish much of anything.

Later, in the summer of 1952, when the prospect of an Eisenhower presidency appeared inevitable, Truman was even more to the point: “He’ll sit here,” he said, tapping away on his Oval Office desk, “and he’ll say, ‘Do this! Do that!’ And nothing will happen. Poor Ike – it won’t be a bit like the Army. He’ll find it very frustrating.”

Apparently, Truman was right on the money. Commenting on the early days of Ike’s administration, Eisenhower aide Robert Donovan wrote, “In the face of continuing dissidence and disunity, the President sometimes simply explodes with exasperation. What was the use, he demanded to know, of his trying to lead the Republican Party….” Notably, this was the sentiment of one of the most popular presidents in modern history, and one around whom the nation united in the face of the Cold War and an enemy committed to the destruction of our way of life.

By now, the parallels to contemporary times should be abundantly evident. In the aftermath of September 11, 2001, George W. Bush joined the ranks of the most popular presidents. Once again, Americans faced an enemy bent on our destruction. Nevertheless, apart from his admirable efforts as commander in chief, President Bush has accomplished very little. In the words of renowned Harvard political scientist Richard Neustadt, like Eisenhower and Truman before him, Mr. Bush’s presidential “‘powers’ are no guarantee of power; clerkship is no guarantee of leadership.”

What Neustadt meant when he wrote those words (almost 50 years ago) was that use of the presidency’s constitutional powers does not an effective president make. For a president to be effective in office, he must draw upon the qualities of leadership and steer his party’s legislative members in the direction he sees they must go.

Yet it is just such an effective leadership – both in the presidency and in the Republican majorities in Congress – that have been sorely lacking over the past six years. Unlike the young lions who stormed Capitol Hill during the Republican Revolution of 1994, today’s GOP leaders have lost their ideological bearings. No longer do they practice the constitutional constructionism and social and fiscal conservatism that brought the GOP to power after 30 years in the congressional wilderness. Our current crop of Republicans have instead embraced populism and big government, not to mention all the corruption and incompetence that invariably accompany these things. Now, they carry this creed back into the minority.

More troubling than the November elections themselves, however, is that many Republicans don’t seem to understand why the people sent them packing.

Those still in denial now dismiss the Democrats’ victory as insignificant, and they’re quick to put a positive spin on things: The Democrats’ gains were at or below the usual trend for the incumbent party’s sixth year; Mark Foley’s “October surprise” stalled the Republicans’ momentum; many of the newly elected Democrats couldn’t have won without embracing conservative positions; and on, and on.

White House Deputy Chief of Staff and Senior Advisor Karl Rove, who predicted that the GOP would hold both houses of Congress, affixed the blame on “mitigating circumstances” such as these. “The profile of corruption in the exit polls was bigger than I’d expected,” Rove said. “Abramoff, lobbying, Foley and Haggard added to the general distaste that people have for all things Washington, and it just reached critical mass.”

“The Republican philosophy,” concluded Rove, “is alive and well and likely to re-emerge in the majority in 2008.” That’s a bit more to the point, but when exactly did the “Republican philosophy” emerge in the first place?

Compare the party’s minority-era platform to what Republicans have vied for in their six-plus years in power.

On the economy, minority-era Republicans trumpeted the elimination of the income tax and comprehensive tax reform; now they’re satisfied with middling tax cuts, and reform hardly receives a mention. They demanded balanced budgets from spendthrift Democrats; now they’ve overseen the largest expansion in discretionary spending since Roosevelt. Likewise, Republicans in the minority called for the dismantling of New Deal-era entitlements, destined to bankrupt the country within a generation. Now they speak of “making good on the promise” of Social Security, they’ve implemented the largest expansion of Medicare in decades with the President’s prescription-drug benefit, and they’re calling for downsizing, but not eliminating, welfare and Medicaid.

In government reform, Republicans called for the dismantlement of the Department of Education, recognizing that government could not provide the foundation for the future of American culture; now they trumpet “No Child Left Behind,” demanding that teachers “retool” to teach our multicultural society. They once called for the dismantlement of burdensome bureaucracy; now they’ve created the boondoggle known as the Department of Homeland Security, instituting the largest new layer of bureaucracy since the restructuring of the Defense Department after World War II.

On social issues, Republicans once pushed for school prayer; now they merely seek a place in the curriculum for “intelligent design.” They once roared with indignation over Bill Clinton’s plan to allow homosexuals in the military; now, for all their talk of military revitalization, Republicans are satisfied with his mealy-mouthed “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. Where once they stood strong with former Reagan Secretary of the Navy James Webb against the very notion of women in combat, they now display the politically correct cowardice of Senator-Elect James Webb and his fellow Democrats.

Countless commentators have already concluded that Republicans must “move to the center” to win in 2008. Haven’t they tried that already? In fact, that’s the problem. Paradoxically, the danger of losing its guiding principles – the foundation of genuine GOP leadership – was voiced by the same Karl Rove who now blames last month’s electoral defeats on “mitigating circumstances” and “critical mass.” To be fair, Rove got it right during a speech in February 2005, fully 20 months before these elections:

“The GOP’s progress during the last four decades is a stunning political achievement, but it is also a cautionary tale of what happens to a dominant party – in this case the Democrat Party – when its thinking becomes ossified, when its energy begins to drain, when an entitlement mentality takes over and when political power becomes an end in itself rather than a means to achieve the common good.”

If only Mr. Rove and his colleagues had heeded his warning.

True, people may not have been voting for what Democrats have to offer, but they were most certainly voting against what Republicans have not offered – real, meaningful and articulate leadership. Like the party of Reagan, such leadership is ideologically grounded in the creed of constitutionally limited government, unencumbered private property and God-given liberty and purpose. Now, will Republicans re-emerge as the party of Reagan and of leadership, or will they content themselves with being so many elected clerks?