Eh? Are Republicans as Tone Deaf as They Appear?

by Stuart Rothenberg January 21, 2006 · 10:03 AM EST

Sometimes, politics involves Machiavellian manipulation and elaborate scenarios based on risky judgments and hard-to-decipher bits of information. Other times, it’s so patently obvious what to do that it’s hard to understand why politicians choose an alternative route.

Presented with a rare opportunity to send a message about change and reform, House Republicans seem ready, instead, to send a message of continuity by selectingMissouri Rep. Roy Blunt (R) as Majority Leader.

Personally, I like Blunt. He has been around long enough to know which way is up, and he has a personable, low-key style that makes him seem both approachable and thoughtful. And his main competitor, the always engaging and interesting Ohio Rep. JohnBoehner (R), didn’t exactly fall off the turnip truck yesterday.

Boehner — a committee chairman who was once, but is not currently, in his party’s leadership — is selling himself as the outsider and reformer in the race. Boehner isn’t much of an outsider, but he is a conservative who knows when to be pragmatic, and he, too, is hard to dislike.

But if Republicans think they can turn the page on former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) by sticking with Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), Blunt as Majority Leader and Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.) as Majority Whip, they must be wearing rose-colored glasses.

I am not arguing that Republicans must shake up their leadership to hold onto the House in November, because I am not sure whether they need to do that. Their ethics package could well be enough to convince voters that they are a force for change and reform.

But if they stick with the same leadership team that they have had, minus DeLay, then they’d better be sure that they can effectively rebut Democratic arguments that“DeLay’s team” still runs the House GOP. Because it does.

As for DeLay and Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio), while these two Republicans have yielded their positions of power inside the House of Representatives, that’s all they have done. DeLay has already filed for re-election and insists that he will seek a 12th term.

Ney, who just stepped down as chairman of the House Administration Committee, hasn’t addressed the question of running yet and doesn’t have to do so until Ohio’s Feb. 15 filing deadline nears. Most observers I have talked with doubt that he’ll seek a new term.

With this election cycle breaking against the Republicans, it is time for both Ney and DeLay to call it quits, following the path taken by then-Sen. BobTorricelli (D-N.J.), who dropped out of his re-election race when he finally realized, just over a month before the 2002 elections, that he would lose.

Instead of causing himself the added pain and embarrassment of a political defeat — and leaving his party with the added setback of losing a Senate seat —Torricelli wisely decided to drop out of his Senate race and allow state Democrats to pick his replacementon the ballot. Then-retired Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D) cruised to an easy 10-point victory.

Ney has not yet been indicted, and DeLay has not yet had his day in court. As we all know, both are innocent unless and until a jury has found them guilty. But the two Republicans ought to announce their retirements now, because they are likely headed for defeat if they run again.

Both Republicans represent GOP-leaning districts, and that allows them to fool themselves into thinking that they can win another term. Ney was re-elected easily two years ago against a Democrat who raised no money and offered no serious opposition. But Ney’s ethics problems are not likely to evaporate over the next few months. He isn’t going to be absolved of guilt, since the House ethics committee would spend months doing its own probe even if federal prosecutors end theirs soon.

Early polling in DeLay’s district shows that voters are unhappy with him and are willing to look for an alternative. Would voters in Texas’ 22nd district (andOhio’s 18th district) prefer to send Republicans to Congress? Sure. But that’s a far cry from saying that they will send any Republican to Washington, D.C. Ney and DeLay have picked up so much baggage that each one’s chances of surviving in November is less than50-50.

The two Republicans are probably concerned that if they resign or announce that they won’t seek re-election, people will see that as an admission ofguilt. But all they have to do is say that they need to devote too much of their time to their own defense, then reiterate their innocence. And they can say that they are leaving Congress for the good of their party.

Ethics has become a major threat to the Republicans’ control of Capitol Hill. Neither a change in the GOP House leadership nor the exits of DeLay and Ney will stop the Democrats from continuing with their “culture of corruption” message. But those changes, along with an ethics package, would make it easier for Republicans to reposition themselves on the issue of reform and to move on from their current status quo orientation.