A little rebellion now and then

“… a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical.”

— Thomas Jefferson

The unimaginative stolidity of trench warfare during the First World War has nothing on battlefield operations in today’s politics.

Republicans and Democrats sit in their trenches day after day, hurling shells and firing shots at each other from the relative cover of their political bases, with little thought to anything greater than survival.

But events on the presidential front should suggest to political soldiers hoping for another tour of duty that the trench strategy could be deadly this time around, despite being safest in most other cycles.


New recruits arrive courageously on Capitol Hill every other year with the best of intentions but quickly develop a paralyzing fear of sticking their heads up and charging toward the horizon. Their party leaders tell them that nothing awaits them there but political death and destruction. These are the same leaders who, the recruits are told, hold the key to success on Capitol Hill.

Why head out there into the lonely unknown where bullets fly and one’s shiny political future could be cut short by one well-positioned sniper?

So they take their slot, hunker down and don’t do anything that attracts attention.

Entitlement reform; energy self-sufficiency; tax reform; balancing the budget; paying off the national debt; securing the borders; revitalizing the visionless space program; rebuilding the nation’s ailing infrastructure; giving our children a world-class education; healthcare. There are scores of serious issues that seem never to be dealt with as much as tinkered with.

Why the reluctance to attack? Simple. Fear of being blown to shreds by well-financed adversaries (sometimes friends) who lie in wait for anyone who strays outside defined party lines.

If you want entitlement programs to be solvent, you are insensitive to the poor, the elderly and minorities. If you think the government has a responsibility for those who don’t have healthcare, you are a socialist with no appreciation for the free-enterprise system.


If you want to enforce the immigration laws or make English the nation’s official language, you’re a bigot. If you support drilling for oil in the ANWR, you’re an evil polluter who couldn’t care less about damaging the planet.

It is easy to understand how any newly elected member, from either political party, arrives in town like a swashbuckling Indiana Jones and soon finds himself slinking through the halls of the Cannon building like the Incredible Shrinking Man.

 The trenches are safe — filled with the big donors and activist organizations on which both parties have become reliant. In the trenches there are plenty of folks hunkered down with you, praising you for being their champion by keeping bad things from happening.

 Meanwhile, bombs and mortar rounds continue to explode between the trenches in the no man’s land where average people live with their hopes and dreams.

Back in 1992, 110 new members rolled into town with their big reform-minded dreams. That was the year of Ross Perot and his pie charts, and of boy Gov. Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonElizabeth Warren: More 'Hillary' than Hillary Nadler plays 1999 clip of Graham defining high crimes: 'It doesn't even have to be a crime' Trump's big reelection weapon: A remarkable manufacturing jobs boom MORE, who had the audacity to challenge an incumbent president whose popularity had reached historic highs just a year before.

One of the new Republicans, Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.), organized a summit at which some of the newly elected, new-thinking Democrats and Republicans could meet and discuss ideas for reform.

It was held in the Omaha, Neb., the geographic center of the country. Hopes were high that the parties’ new recruits could get to know each other, bond and take office unified in their belief that real solutions to big problems could be discovered only by taking the risk of leaving the trenches.

It was a great idea, with one serious flaw. Then-Speaker of the House Tom Foley (D-Wash.) found out about it and instructed all “his” new Democrats (64 members) that Omaha was not a good stopover point if they wanted any hope of success on Capitol Hill.

Diaz-Balart found himself hosting a small, marginalized event with only Republicans attending.

Hard to tell how serious a reform breeze will still be blowing come November, or whether Obama v. McCain will usher in any kind of little rebellion, like 1992.

It will be interesting to watch, and even more interesting to see if party leaders try to embrace rebellion or squelch it.

You can reach Jim Mills at jmills@thehill.com.