By Kevin Ferris
Amid the celebrating over Scott Brown’s Senate victory Tuesday, some Republicans were smartly looking ahead, arguing that the party can’t rest on the laurels of one election, however momentous.
Kevin Madden, press secretary for Mitt Romney in 2008, wrote in the Wall Street Journal: “The party can prove to a disaffected public that we stand for more than just winning elections but instead are dedicated to reforming a broken system and governing a nation with public support.”
In other words, don’t let the Brown win go your heads. It’s a big deal — huge, considering that Republicans and conservatives were thought extinct just a year ago. But don’t think this is a Sally Field moment. Voters don’t suddenly really, really like the GOP. Instead, consider the things they really, really dislike:
The state of the economy and double-digit unemployment — and they know it’s not Obama’s fault, but they want action, not just complaints about George Bush.
Bloated, wasteful government spending like the stimulus package, especially when political allies and special interests seem to benefit more than the national interest.
Trillion-dollar programs, such as cap and trade and health-care bills that will burden families financially at a time when they are watching every penny.
Back-room deals and bribes that benefit certain senators, states, or union members at the expense of other states and taxpayers.
The increased taxes needed to pay for the wasteful spending, trillion-dollar programs and bribes.
This isn’t just the griping of a few Tea Party activists. Rasmussen reports that independents went for Scott Brown 73 percent to 25 — many of the same people who voted overwhelmingly for Barack Obama for president.
Applying the brakes
In 2008, Obama sounded like a reasonable centrist in the debates. However, instead of driving the country toward the middle, he hopped in the back of the limo and flipped the keys to Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid, who clasped hands a la Thelma and Louise and headed for the cliff. On one issue, health-care reform, Brown has been sent in to apply the brakes.
But allowing for a 41st senator is a long way from entrusting Republicans with a majority in Congress. It’s not unthinkable, given a pattern of heightened scrutiny of politicians in the age of e-mail, tweets, and 24/7 cable.
Consider that the last time Democrats had a majority in the House, they ruled for 41 straight years. They were booted out in 1995 for being corrupt, out-of-touch spendthrifts. The GOP majority that followed lasted only 12 years — they were fired for being corrupt, out-of-touch spendthrifts. Just as politicians have sped up the process of going from the party of change to being the problem, voters catch on quicker, too — easily seeing the excesses of old Congresses in the new. That could mean chasing Democrats — today’s corrupt, out-of-touch spendthrifts — from power this November, after just four years.
But based on what? Reacting solely in disgust or in search of something better? Hope and change? Voters fell for that in 2008, the promise of an entirely new kind of government, run by new and improved politicians. Honest. Transparent. There for the people, not for the special interests. Obama and Democrats in Congress have fallen far short in this area.
The challenge for Republicans now is proving to a skeptical, angry electorate that they can do better. Here are places to start:
By proving they can do more than say “no.” There are alternative GOP plans on health care, energy, economic stimulus and budgeting — and areas of agreement with the president. If Republicans are serious about health-care reform, now’s the time to speak out.
By having their actions speak louder than words. If Republicans are complaining about pork-barrel spending of others while still lined up at the trough for their own earmarks, they have a problem.
By showing they value the kind of independence Scott Brown talked about in his campaign. That means the party — and allies in the Tea Party movement — will not always like how certain lawmakers vote.
Maybe Democrats will make it easy, taking their party over the cliff and leaving the GOP as the only alternative standing. But it’s better not to take charge by default. A governing majority, and the trust of the people, should be earned.
X Kevin Ferris is assistant editor of the Editorial Page of the Philadelphia Inquirer.