Lacking Unity, GOP Struggles with Power The Republicans hold control of the White House and both chambers of Congress, but the GOP finds itself struggling to move forward on its agenda. In the latest Watching Washington column, NPR's Ron Elving examines some of the reasons why.
NPR logo Lacking Unity, GOP Struggles with Power

Lacking Unity, GOP Struggles with Power

It's an old but durable adage: Be careful what you wish for, as you just may get it.

For decades — indeed, generations — the Republican Party has pined for the dominant power position it enjoys today in Washington. From 1931 until 2001, the GOP held the White House and controlled both chambers of Congress for a grand total of just two years: 1953 and 1954.

George W. Bush is the first Republican retained in the White House with Republican control in both chambers of Congress since Calvin Coolidge in 1924.

That's why a sense of energy pent up over many years permeates the Republican agenda and animates the party's officeholders. It inspires the scope and scale of policy changes and it dictates the pace for pursuing them.

As House Majority Leader Tom DeLay said after Mr. Bush's first presidential election victory four years ago: "We didn't wait all this time to get into the majority so we could go slow."

In this vibrant and promising era, the Grand Old Party could rightly claim to have become a Grand New Party. So why isn't it having more fun?

Although the bankruptcy bill is done, along with one of several bills aimed at revising the tort system, much of the GOP wish list seems to be receding. That includes proposed changes to Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare, the tax code, the immigration laws, energy policy and environmental regulation.

Congress has yet to pass the supplemental appropriation to fund continuing operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. And it appears the government may go without a budget agreement again this year, making it far more difficult to have a proper appropriations process.

Polls in the past 10 days have shown President Bush's public approval sliding five to seven percentage points from earlier this month, when slightly more than half those surveyed approved.

In the Gallup Poll done for CNN and USA Today, the president's approval was at its lowest point ever (45 percent). Gallup also found a small upturn in the percentage of respondents who were willing to call themselves Democrats.

Other measures by CBS News and Newsweek showed similar results, comparable to the president's previous lows, which were recorded in the spring of 2004 around the time of the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal.

Descending into the mid-40s is not unusual for a second term president, but it is unusual territory for Mr. Bush, who set records for his many months above 70 percent approval in his first term. And it is also unusual to see such a decline without a clear cause.

Some of these polls have been taken since President Bush signed a bill passed by Congress in an eleventh hour effort to keep Terri Schiavo alive. That federal intervention has proven unpopular with the public — even among some elements of the president's demographic base.

But other polling found the president's approval rating slipping even before that episode, suggesting other factors at work. Among them might be the softening of the stock market, the rise in oil and gasoline prices, the controversy over proposed changes to Social Security and the angry reaction to federal budget cuts and federal budget deficits.

The budget element contains the contradiction that all governing parties must face. The people in charge, whoever they are, take heat if they reduce benefits in popular programs (be it Amtrak or Medicaid). But the same folks get hammered when the federal surplus turns into a range of new mountainous deficits.

If Republican leaders in Washington shift costs to the states, they force governors to make the unpopular cuts or impose higher taxes. That puts pressure on Republican governors, most of whom don't have the luxury of deficit spending. Even such anti-tax stalwarts as Mitch Daniels in Indiana, Bob Riley in Alabama and Bill Owens in Colorado find themselves trying to do just that.

The common thread in all this is the onus of unified power. When you are the only party in charge, you are the party in the cross hairs. Yet this GOP, like earlier ruling parties in our history, consists of distinct parts. Making them all function together is frustrating and distracting.

Throughout his first term, President Bush got what he wanted from Congress more often than not. But the grand 2004 mission of reproducing the 1924 Coolidge sweep has now been achieved. The coalition of all Republicans now lacks that special cohesion that only a shared electoral interest creates.

Restoring that cohesion is serious work. And right now it does not look like much fun.