The Big Idea

Faking Right

How the Republican Congress will abandon Tea Party ideas and legislate toward the center.

John Boehner

In the likely event that Republicans capture control of one or both houses of Congress next week, the new leaders will face a strategic question. Should they pursue the agenda of the Tea Party movement that brought them to power? Or should they try to mollify their party’s base with gestures and symbols, without taking its radical ideology too seriously? While they’ll never discuss this problem honestly, indications point in the latter direction. That is, the GOP’s congressional leadership will feint right while legislating closer to the center.

The choice is between a Ronald Reagan strategy and a Newt Gingrich strategy. Reagan, who first rode a new conservative movement to the presidency in 1980, was a master of the right fake. After one brief and disastrous attempt to reduce Social Security spending in 1981, Reagan never seriously challenged federal spending again. But Reagan sounded so convincing in his rhetorical flights that most conservatives and liberals walk around today thinking that he cut government. Reagan was just as slippery with the religious right, embracing them while wasting little political capital on issues like abortion or school prayer. President George W. Bush followed this same model, humoring the base while letting government expand.

After Gingrich became speaker of the House in 1994, he was much more literal-minded. He and the Contract with America Republicans made the terrible mistake of taking their own anti-government rhetoric seriously and thinking they had a mandate to implement it. They proposed a budget that really would have slashed federal spending on Medicare, Medicaid, education, and the environment. And when Bill Clinton wouldn’t roll over for them, they were willing to shut down the government, which they had convinced themselves everyone hated.

A recent Wall Street Journal article suggested that the future leaders of a Republican House remember Gingrich’s mistake and intend to avoid repeating it. The House candidates most likely to win are experienced politicians who understand they’re being handed a gift, not a mandate. They don’t think working with Democrats is evil. On the big picture tax and budget issues, they plan compromise with President Obama.

What makes this plausible is that the House leaders-in-waiting are, by and large, not an ideological group. John Boehner, the speaker-in-the-wings, could have replaced Monty Hall on Let’s Make a Deal. Kevin McCarthy, who will probably become the House whip, is less pickled-looking but similarly pragmatic. Even Eric Cantor, the more ideological majority leader in waiting, says he has no interest in another government shutdown. By contrast, Mike Pence of Indiana, who advocates a “no compromise” strategy, is considering resigning from the leadership ranks to run for president in 2012.

In practice, it may be difficult to discern which tactic congressional Republicans are pursuing. “Repealing” health care reform, for instance, sounds like a radical step. In fact, voting for repeal would be little more than a gesture, since Obama would veto any such measure. Refusing to fund parts of the health care bill in the 2012 budget, on the other hand, would count as a meaningful effort at rollback—and would be likely to provoke a high-stakes showdown. If the new leaders make a big deal about banning “earmarks”—which amount to less than 1 percent of federal spending—count it as a feint. If they propose means-testing Medicare or raising the retirement age, count them as serious.

One can already see antagonism emerging between the congressional and presidential wings of the party. The congressional wing, seeking to retain swing seats it picks up this year in 2012, will incline toward symbolic action. The presidential wing, trying to capture the Tea Party activists in a primary season, will argue for a frontal challenge to spending. If the congressional leaders show moderation and flexibility, they should expect to be accused of selling out by Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, Mitt Romney, et al. But they are likely to back off anyway, because making draconian cuts in spending, especially against the backdrop of an anemic economy, would be politically suicidal.

Why does anti-government ideology work as an electoral strategy but fail as a governing one? In a recent essay in the New York Review of Books, Michael Tomasky offers a persuasive explanation. By and large, the American public likes Republican themes of more liberty and less government better than it likes Democratic themes of compassion and fairness. But when it comes to the specifics, the situation is reversed. Democratic programs like Social Security and Medicare retain broad popular support, whereas Republican cuts in programs provoke antagonism. Thus conservatives prefer to debate philosophy while liberals would rather argue about programs.

Tomasky argues that this conundrum makes it difficult for Democrats to connect their policies to their beliefs. Conversely, it makes it hard for Republicans ever to follow through on their ideas. We will see what they do with another opportunity to put them into practice.Like Slate on  Facebook. Follow us on  Twitter.