To the Republicans: Don’t unpack

Published 3:12 pm Wednesday, November 10, 2010

While Republicans cheer their larger-than-expected gains in their takeover of the House of Representatives, some election results are giving them reasons to worry about the path ahead. Even as they handed the House to the GOP, a majority of voters said they have an unfavorable view of the Republican Party, just about the same percentage who said they don’t like Democrats. And before most ballots were cast, some Republican leaders were already raining on their own parade.

 “The looming victories for Republican candidates next Tuesday is not a validation of the Republican Party at all,” former Florida governor Jeb Bush told The New York Times just before Election Day, and Republican Party Chairman Michael Steele said on ABC News that he agreed with those comments: “I think the American people right now are much more skeptical of the direction the president and Mrs. Pelosi and Mr. Reid are taking the country. But they also have some concerns about the direction that Republicans will then lead when we take control of the congress in 2011.”

 Those concerns mean the Republicans could be in for a short tenure as the majority in Congress if they’re not careful about what they do, or don’t do, over the next couple of years. With voters as angry as they are, the partisan volatility we’ve seen in the last few elections could continue as voters keep demanding change. Independent voters, who made up about a third of the electorate, went overwhelmingly for Republicans this year, after giving President Obama a big majority two years ago. This refusal to settle on one political party to lead the Congress is something the country hasn’t experienced for more than a half century.

Sign up for our daily email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

 The swinging back and forth between the parties reminded us of a story Newt Gingrich told when he became Speaker of the House in 1995. Instead of moving into the suite of offices just vacated by Tom Foley, who had not only lost his position as speaker but also his seat in Congress, Gingrich chose instead to occupy the space left by retiring Republican leader Bob Michel. Foley’s humiliation wasn’t the reason the new speaker rejected the Washington Democrat’s sizeable piece of Capitol real estate. Gingrich was simply picking the best office and Michel’s, with a sweeping view of the Mall from its private balcony, was far nicer than Foley’s. How did the minority leader end up with better digs than the speaker? The answer to that question delighted historian Gingrich.

 It seems that after the Republican wave election of 1946 Sam Rayburn gave up that office to Joe Martin, the new Republican speaker. Then two years later, when a Democratic wave swept the House, the men switched offices again. After the 1952 election, the moving boxes once more crossed the Capitol as Martin again assumed the Speakership. Two years later it was Rayburn’s turn again. But this time the practical old Texan told Martin to stay put. President Eisenhower would be up for re-election in 1956 and would likely bring a Republican Congress with him, Rayburn figured, so why bother to move?

 When the Democrats surprised him and won, Rayburn was too much of a gentleman (behind his often scowling exterior, Mr. Rayburn could be a sweetheart) to dislodge his Republican friend from Massachusetts. The rooms in the West Front of the Capitol became the territory of the minority leader for 40 years (the speaker moved into the new East Front after it was expanded in the late 50s) until the next Republican speaker, Newt Gingrich.

 Those years produced a lot of nonsense about how Democrats had a permanent lock on Congress and Republicans on the White House. Voters proved the theories wrong with the presidential election of 1992 and the off-year in 1994. Divided government was then expected to last forever until the 2000 Republican takeover of both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. Then came 2006 and 2008, which brought back the Democrats.

 And now? Next January, Speaker John Boehner, or whomever the Republicans choose, might think of keeping a few boxes packed and ready to move out of those elegant offices in a couple of years. We could be in for a series of waves washing over Washington.

 We won’t know whether that’s true until we go through another couple of elections. And that’s why Republican leaders should worry as they take charge of one branch of Congress — they’re going to have a hard time figuring out how to hold on to those offices they’re about to take over.

(Steve Roberts’ new book, “From Every End of This Earth” (HarperCollins), was published this fall. Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by e-mail at