The Importance of a Foil

The Speaker’s Lobby: The Importance of a Foil

By: Chad Pergram, FOX News

02 May 2009


House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH) wants to reinvigorate the Republican Party. So does Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney (R), House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-VA) and many others.


But you know it’s bad for the GOP when even House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) takes up the Republican cause twice in less than a week.


“It is important for us to have a strong Republican party,” Pelosi told a press conference on April 23. “And I hope that the next generation will take back the Republican Party for the Grand Old Party that it used to be.”


Then at a news conference on April 29 with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), the Speaker again begged for Republicans to “take back your party,” asserting that a “radical, right-wing element” hijacked the GOP.


“Our country needs a strong, diverse, Republican party,” said Pelosi.


At that point, Reid interrupted.


“Not too strong,” the Leader blurted.


The press corps roared.


Reid probably doesn’t have to worry much about that for now. The GOP is coming off a week where Sen. Arlen Specter (D-PA) quit the Republican party, putting Senate Democrats one shy of the magical 60 seats necessary to cut off a filibuster. Democrats remain hopeful that the 60th seat could come in the form of Democratic Minnesota Senate candidate Al Franken, who’s locked in a court battle with former Sen. Norm Coleman (R-MN).


The same week, the House swore-in its newest member, Rep. Scott Murphy (D-NY). Murphy finally emerged victorious in a special election battle with Republican Jim Tedisco to take the House seat of Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) who was appointed to the Senate.


A moderate Democrat, Gillibrand held that rural, upstate New York seat for a little more than two years. In 2006, Gillibrand seized the seat from former Rep. John Sweeney (R-NY). Republicans hoped Tedisco could win back a district that the GOP dominated for decades before Gillibrand.


Then on Wednesday, word came that Butler County, Ohio Sheriff Rick Jones was taking out petitions to possibly challenge House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH) in next spring’s GOP primary. Boehner’s only faced one primary opponent since his first race for Congress in 1990. Jones is popular and media-savvy. And while Boehner is arguably the most powerful Republican in the country now, just the fact that he could face a primary back home from a serious politician speaks volumes about the state of dissention in the GOP ranks.

Boehner says that after two election cataclysms in 2006 and 2008, the GOP brand is “tarnished.”

Observing all of this, Columnist AB Stoddard of The Hill newspaper tolled a death knell for the Republicans.


“Rest in peace, Grand Old Party – if you can manage reincarnation, maybe we’ll see you in 2016,” Stoddard wrote.

In an effort to rebrand themselves, and hopefully court disaffected Democrats, GOP leaders unveiled the National Council for a New America this week. Designed by House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-VA), the council will hold a series of “conversations” and “town halls” all over the country to develop alternatives to the policies engineered by President Obama and Democrats in Congress.

The venue: Pie-Tanza, a pizza joint located in a strip mall in the Washington suburb of Arlington, VA.

Now, it’s unclear if Republicans will develop the same reverence for Pie-Tanza as the Little White Schoolhouse in Ripon, WI. The Little White Schoolhouse is where organizers founded the Republican party on March 20, 1854. But Republicans are struggling for traction these days. And Pie-Tanza is as good a place as any to start.


And, there appears to be a silver lining in all of this for Republicans.


At Boehner’s Thursday press conference, Cincinnati Enquirer reporter Malia Rulon asked the GOP Leader for his thoughts on possibly facing a formidable foe in the primary.


“Listen, this is America,” Boehner said. “Competition makes everybody better.”


Which brings us back to Nancy Pelosi’s longing for a robust Republican party.


No fool she, Pelosi would agree with Boehner’s assertion that “competition makes everybody better.” And Democrats don’t have a worthy foil right now. Ali needed Frazier. The Yankees needed the Red Sox. Magic needed Bird. Shakespeare needed Marlowe. Batman needed The Joker.


The Republican doldrums could create problems for the Democrats. Historically, big majorities overreach. They tend to start devouring their own. Arrogant, entrenched majorities spawn the likes of convicted felons like former Reps. Bob Ney (R-OH) and Duke Cunningham (R-CA).


Furthermore, the electoral dominance of the Democrats doesn’t necessarily mean they can accomplish their lofty policy goals. Democrats have pined for 60 votes in the Senate for years. Coupled with Specter’s defection and a possible Franken victory in Minnesota, they could attain that high-water mark soon.


But on the ground, those 60 votes don’t necessarily bring Democrats any closer to passing controversial climate change legislation or health care reform.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) still has to grapple with the likes of moderates like Sens. Ben Nelson (D-NE), Bill Nelson (D-FL), Blanche Lincoln, (D-AR), Mark Pryor (D-AR), Mary Landrieu (D-LA), Evan Bayh (D-IN) and, yes, even now Specter.


Sixty Democratic votes could in fact work as an albatross if voters start to wonder why Democrats fail to enact key legislation despite overwhelming House and Senate majorities.

The best example of this came Thursday when the Senate killed a bill authored by Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL). The measure was designed to ease the mortgage burden on overextended homeowners. It’s known as the “cramdown bill” because it forces the financial industry to allow bankruptcy judges to lower principal and interest rates for some saddled homeowners. The legislation required 60 votes to pass, but fell 15 short. Twelve Democrats voted no, including the newly-minted Specter.

Republicans are reeling. And Democrats are flying high. But both sides know that this political dynamic is fraught with a peril that could have consequences for both.

– Chad Pergram covers Congress for FOX News. He’s won an Edward R. Murrow Award and the Joan Barone Award for his reporting on Capitol Hill.