Much of the speculation about the implications of the tragic Tucson shooting has centered on whether it will lead to any meaningful change in the incendiary rhetoric that has been on the rise in American political campaigns and on Internet sites, cable television, and talk radio. A more productive line of thought is to look at whether the tragedy will change the strategy and tactics of the new Republican majority in the House and, more broadly, the 100 GOP freshmen in the House and Senate.
The Tucson shooter seems to be a deranged young man with a bizarre point of view who was not part of any discernible party, ideology, or movement. Nonetheless, conservatives, tea party adherents, and Second Amendment advocates find themselves, appropriately or not, on the defensive. Had a Republican member of Congress been targeted in such an attempt in 2006 or 2008, it would likely have been liberals needing to tread carefully.
Although only about half of the new Republican members could truly be identified with the tea party, this 2010 class, by all accounts, was always sure to be pretty rambunctious. Most of the freshmen ran as outsiders, not only against President Obama and the Democrats but also against the inside-the-Beltway status quo. The “Watergate Babies” elected in 1974 from the Democratic and liberal side also ran strongly against “Washington.” That class of 1974 overturned a lot of institutional furniture, so watch for similar upheaval this year.
The danger is that in the current political climate, what one side’s adherents see as passion, commitment, and strong principles, others view as outside the mainstream at best and intolerant, extreme, and dangerous at worst.
The Tucson rampage is unlikely to change Republicans’ political philosophies or positions. It may serve, however, as a strong signal that they should approach things more cautiously and think before saying anything that a typical swing voter might find extreme. Members from safe districts are pretty insulated from blowback if they use extreme language, but in the world of the Internet and 24/7 cable TV, a particularly strident statement can hurt their colleagues who may not have the luxury of representing a ruby-red district.
House Speaker John Boehner’s statements and reactions to the Tucson massacre have been pitch-perfect. The decision to delay bringing up repeal of the health care law was smart and rightly done very quickly.
The GOP House and Senate leaders’ approach to the tragedy has been measured, in keeping with the delicate circumstances. In most cases, their words could easily have come from Rep. Gabrielle Giffords’s own party leadership. It’s not hard to imagine how some other prominent GOP members might have fumbled this incredibly touchy situation. Even the most conservative new members can probably appreciate how Boehner has defused what could have been an even tougher position for their party under these circumstances.
Boehner’s statements and reactions have been pitch-perfect.
This is not to suggest that congressional Republicans will be substantively any less conservative than they would have been otherwise, just that they might carefully moderate their approach and tactics. In this sense, liberals who hoped that these new Republicans would come across as raving lunatics might find themselves disappointed. Democrats benefit if Republicans seem like radicals, outside the American mainstream, because that alienates swing voters, particularly those in the suburbs.
The GOP lawmakers now in power on Capitol Hill have very carefully studied the missteps of 1995-96 when House Republicans overreached after seizing power. The new leaders seem to have the attitude that “we may make new mistakes but we won’t be making the same mistakes.” The question has been not whether the party’s leaders understand the lessons of 1995-96 but whether the message also resonates with rank-and-file members, particularly the newer and younger ones who weren’t in Congress 15 years ago and may not have even been paying attention to politics then.
Congressional Republicans are entering the 2012 campaign cycle in an enviable position. In the House, Democrats would need a 25-seat net gain to win control of the chamber; at this admittedly early point, that looks like a pretty tall order. Presidential-election years tend to result in smaller net shifts in the House, and 2010 saw Republicans simply reclaiming seats they lost in 2006 and 2008.
In the Senate, Democrats have 23 seats up compared with only 10 for Republicans. Considering that the GOP lost the majority in the chamber in 2006, when the victorious Democrats had a strong tailwind, a Republican takeover of the Senate appears quite likely in 2012.
In short, Republicans don’t need an electoral wave to ensure House and Senate majorities in 2013, they just need to keep from screwing up.
This article appears in the January 15, 2011, edition of National Journal Magazine.