Feehery: The last of the workhorses

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Bob Dole (R-Kan.) was the last of the workhorses.

When my old boss, Rep. Bob Michel (Ill.), ran to be Republican leader in 1980 against Guy Vander Jagt (Mich.), it was dubbed the race of the workhorse vs. the show horse.

Congressional workhorses tend to stumble when it comes to their television appearances but shine when it comes to producing legislative accomplishments.

Dole had a sharp wit, but he was no great orator. He was good at putting deals together and making the government run effectively, which endeared him to only the few who care about that kind of thing.  

President Biden fancies himself a workhorse, but let’s face it. He won the presidential race because he was slightly less obnoxious than former President Trump. Trump was not just a show horse, but a showman. Nobody could put on a better show than our former president. When it came to the intricacies of the legislative process, Trump had the insider knowledge of the average 6th grader. But he knows how to drive a hard bargain. After all, he was the author of the best-selling book, “The Art of the Deal”.

Trump replaced another show horse. Former President Obama’s brief stop in the Senate was consumed not with the legislative process, but with getting to know wealthy funders. They helped him become the least experienced president in our history.

More so than Trump, Obama’s quick rise to power inspired ambitious people on both sides of the aisle to eschew the traditional way up the political ladder and use their celebrity in a desperate attempt to capture the White House. 

In Congress today, we have a sea of show horses, all cultivating their public personas, polishing off their Twitter chops, doing things to capture the conservative or progressive zeitgeist of the moment, the more outrageous the better. 

The congressional incentive structure favors the bold and the beautiful. If you can raise money, you can rise in the leadership. If you can string a soundbite, you can raise the money. If you can appeal to either the very big donors or the very small donors, you have your ticket to political stardom.

Democrats think they are punishing Republicans whose rhetoric they find offensive by kicking them off their legislative committees, but they would be wrong. Committee work when you are in the minority is pure drudgery. Your amendments almost never pass, the hearings themselves are mostly snooze-fests, plus the leadership makes all the decisions anyway. If you are a show horse, the work of the committees might be the actual work of the Congress, as now-hated former President Wilson once said, but it’s not the actual work of raising the big bucks.

The folks who mostly care about committee work, the corporate lobbyists, can’t really compete when it comes to big money giving. They have strict limits on how much they can give in PAC dollars. And many of them have decided to stop giving to most Republicans, which makes the House GOP especially much more populist and much less willing to hear the K Street narratives anymore.

The bread-and-butter of the legislative process, constructing complicated deals among competing special interests, crafting agreements among industries and setting the rules of the road for economic progress, has been derailed by intense political partisanship, an unhelpful media, ambitious show horses who care little about congressional accomplishments and a greedy leadership that keeps all the big decisions to itself. 

Bob Dole was famous because he ran for president, but he became historically significant because he was one of the last of the legislative workhorses. He had an iron butt and would outwork and outwait his more impatient colleagues. He knew when to hold his cards and when to fold them, like when he moved to reopen the government during the shutdown of 1995.

The American people and the national media are attracted to political show horses, but what this country needs now is more legislative workhorses — legislators who can pull the nation together and make some progress on the important issues of the day.

Feehery is a partner at EFB Advocacy and blogs at www.thefeeherytheory.com. He served as spokesman to former House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), as communications director to former House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Texas), and as a speechwriter to former House Minority Leader Bob Michel (R-Ill.).

Tags Barack Obama Bob Dole Bob Michel Dennis Hastert Donald Trump gop president run Joe Biden showhorses Shutdown workhorses

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