The Dire Problem of Republican Leadership

Diagnosing a catastrophic illness.

boehnerThe bitter GOP defeat of 2012, when their opposition had never seemed more vulnerable, sparked a prolonged inquest on possible causes: media bias mutating into outright cheerleading, a flawed candidate, unpopular social issues, unfavorable demographics. Rather less was heard about the quality of Republican leadership.

Let's start with national chair Reince Priebus. All four campaign debates were moderated by partisan Democrats. One of them, Candy Crowley, knocked Romney off his balance with an ambush that stalled momentum he had developed in the first debate. Priebus stood passively by as the debates were rigged against his party's candidates.

On election day, the GOP ground game was abysmal. Insufficiently tested systems broke down and GOP voter turnout was well below what it should have been. Negligence by Priebus again. Romney's campaign chair is blamed for a poor campaign, especially for complacency towards the end, but Preibus stood by and let it happen. Yet Priebus didn't resign after the election, nor was he asked to leave. As if sleepwalking, the GOP reelected him in an uncontested vote, without discussion of the damage he had done.

At the moment the most important Republican leadership role is that of the Speaker. Democrats have the Presidency, the Senate, the national press, and the educational system. The office of Speaker is the GOP counterweight to all of this, which makes it a precious asset that needs to be used to greatest possible effect. What does that imply? First, as the most visible Republican, the Speaker must explain and promote the GOP's values and policies to the electorate.  Second, because he leads the only Republican group that has the power to initiate legislative actions, he must be the party's chief strategist. Third, he must organize and deploy the party's talent.

These purposes suggest certain personal qualities. To make the party's case to the public, the Speaker needs to be articulate and engaging: he must have the knack of projecting Republican ideas in crisp, concise language, and a personality that can keep people listening. To be the party's chief strategist he needs resourcefulness, foresight, and energy. To be its organizer he needs to be well-informed about the abilities and outlook of his people, and to understand what they will and won't accept.

Does that sound like John Boehner? Even if Boehner were good in most areas but weak in one, that would not be enough; the office is so important for Republicans right now that its effectiveness must not be limited. But the truth is that Boehner is at best mediocre in every single respect. He is a dull speaker, unable to focus issues quickly in compelling language. He is absent from the airwaves for weeks at a time, and seems not to understand that his position must be used to create public support for Republican ideas and initiatives.

As to strategic foresight, who can forget the embarrassment of Boehner assuring the Tea Party that had driven the GOP to its 2010 victory: "we get it, we get it." That was an admission that the party rank and file had led him, not the other way round. Essentially the same thing happened again when following the 2012 election Boehner tried for the personal coup of a grand bargain with President Obama. He was soon having to reassure his party that he knew he had made a mistake: more "we get it." This episode also showed that Boehner had failed to understand the strengths of his position. He and his House Republicans control the beginning of any process involving funds, while Obama controls the end. If Boehner doesn't initiate, nothing happens. When Boehner bypasses his caucus to negotiate directly with Obama he gives away that advantage.

As to Boehner's understanding the mind and enjoying the trust of his Republicans, things could scarcely be worse. When he talks to the President, Republicans get nervous. They don't trust him to negotiate for them because they don't think he understands what they can accept. On Syria, he was once again out of touch with his members, and on Obamacare defunding he was led by his flock instead of the other way round. How much of the recent aggressiveness shown by some Republicans was due to sheer frustration at Boehner's passivity? The result is that Republican legislators are suddenly in a confrontation that their leader neither planned nor foresaw, hence never prepared either them or the public for.

Why do Republicans so often choose leaders who are inarticulate, strategically clueless, and prone to unforced errors -- and then stick with them long after that has become obvious? Denny Hastert, Bob Dole, Gerald Ford, John McCain -- the list could go on. Mitch McConnell may be somewhat above this general level, but after his 2010 drubbing at the polls President Obama singled out McConnell to make a deal with him, obviously seeing him as the GOP's weakest link. He was trying to evade the newly installed House GOP majority, and McConnell foolishly obliged him while the rest of the party stood by and let it happen.

It is hard to escape the conclusion that decisions about leadership seem to bring out an almost robotic Republican reliance on seniority and/or incumbency. It's his turn next; or, someone already has that job. When Democrats got John Kennedy elected to the Presidency at age 43, or Bill Clinton at 46, or Barack Obama at 47, it was not their turn.

Contrary to what doom-sayers in the party said after the 2012 election, Republicans are now in a favorable position. The distressing results of liberalism are visible everywhere in city bankruptcies, astonishingly persistent unemployment, an incoherent and increasingly
unpopular Obamacare, and the misbehavior of government bureaucracies. Democratic constituencies like blacks and the young are facing astonishing levels of unemployment and must surely be vulnerable to a well-stated argument that liberal policies are destroying their lives. The Speaker could use his prominence to focus public attention on that issue, or to create a climate of public opinion conducive to defunding Obamacare, or to raise public awareness of the need for forthright answers on Bengazi or the
IRS -- but he doesn't.

This point has nothing to do with any conflict between conservatives and "establishment" Republicans. Differences of emphasis are inevitable in any party, but when they fester uncontrollably, and when on issue after issue individuals feel the need to strike out on their own (Cruz on Obamacare, McCain on Syria, etc), these are the symptoms of a leadership vacuum.

Republicans have a splendid hand to play -- if only they would stop choosing and staying with leaders who have no idea how to play it. They won in 2010 only because ordinary people (aka the Tea Party) took the reins away from party leaders. When will the party stop squandering its advantages by acquiescing to feckless, drifting, inarticulate leadership? We only have to think about the consequences of another botched Presidential election to understand that one of the biggest threats to the future well-being of the
Republic is the wretched quality of Republican leadership.

John M Ellis is a Professor Emeritus and former Dean of the Graduate Division at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

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