GOP leaders are naked

The Republican congressional leaders want Indiana’s Rep. Mike Pence to go away, or at least shut up.

The Republican congressional leaders want Indiana’s Rep. Mike Pence to go away, or at least shut up.

They say that he’s grandstanding by talking about cutting spending and that the effort of the Republican Study Committee (RSC), which he chairs, to force them to look for offsets as they prepare to spend as much as $200 billion on hurricane relief, on top of the spending that already has conservatives rolling their eyes, is “counterproductive.”

Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), among others, took Pence to the woodshed last week and, we are told, informed him in the bluntest terms that the problem is not runaway spending or the Democrats but him and the RSC. It seems to be the leaders’ belief that, by criticizing spending, Pence and his hundred-odd followers are not the “team players” they should be because it is at least possible that whipping up popular anger on the issue could convince people that the GOP isn’t doing all it can to deliver on decades of promises to America’s voters.

DeLay went so far as to argue preemptively even before the meeting that there is no wasteful spending in the federal budget because of the effective leadership he and his buddies have provided over the years. Though he’s backed off a little from this statement in the past few days, he laid out his views in Monday’s Washington Times on how Republicans ought to “handle” this volatile issue:

“Our positioning on this issue — as a party that is strongly identified with the American people as sensible and determined protectors of the hardworking taxpayer — demands a unified and clear opposition to those whose policies and agendas are hostile to the taxpayer’s best interests: Capitol Hill Democrats intent on raising taxes, free-spending special-interest groups intent on curing the ills of society by advocating federal dollars as the only solution and a bevy of bureaucrats more interested in an expansion of federal programs than the reduction of ineffective ones.”

What Mr. DeLay doesn’t get is that it is precisely that identification that is in danger — not from Pence, but from the actions of the GOP in office. Republicans around the country are beginning to question the wisdom of devoting their time, treasure and votes to a party that doesn’t take its commitments seriously.

The damage to the president on the issue is becoming more visible by the day. In July, more than 90 percent of Republicans gave him a high approval rating, but today that number has dropped into the low 70s in many polls. That drop accounts for most of the overall decline in the president’s approval rating.

Pence’s RSC has launched “Operation Offset,” suggesting dozens of ways to make cuts in other areas to compensate for the increased spending in the wake of the hurricane damage to Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and, now, Texas. The RSC suggests revisiting some of the more than 6,000 earmarks included in the transportation bill and postponing for one year the implementation of the Medicare prescription-drug benefit.

Pence even offered to give up earmarks that benefit his Indiana district, and Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi thought that such a good idea that she chimed in with an offer to give up millions she won for her district. The fact that Pelosi was willing to go along with the offset approached won her cheers from the Heritage Foundation but outraged House GOP leaders who claim that Pence is merely playing into her hands.

Years ago, management guru Tom Peters suggested the slogan of many U.S. corporations might as well be “We’re no worse than anybody else.” It didn’t work for those businesses in a competitive world, and DeLay’s new slogan for the House Republicans, which might as well be “We’re not quite as bad as the Democrats,” isn’t going to be much more effective for his party. Washington Republicans may not care much about limiting spending or restraining the growth of government, but the people who hired them and sent them here do.

Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980 because he believed in people rather than government. While he didn’t always succeed, he fought for eight years in Washington to deliver on his promises to those who elected him. Today’s Republicans ape the Reagan rhetoric, but if their actions mean much they are as different from Reagan as the Republican liberals he vanquished in the early ’80s.

Mike Pence has been taken to the woodshed for pointing out the obvious — that today’s GOP emperors are as naked as jaybirds — and for that he should be applauded.

Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, is a managing associate with Carmen Group, a D.C.-based governmental-affairs firm (www.carmengrouplobbying.com).