Follow the Leader?

By Charlie Cook, National Journal

Now that both President Bush and the 109th Congress have been sworn in, the real work is just beginning. It's hard to remember when a new Congress and a re-elected president faced such monumental challenges under such difficult circumstances.

Many Republican members of Congress -- particularly those in potentially competitive seats -- will spend sleepless nights fretting, over the next two years. More than a few nights' sleep might be lost to worrying about whether to support Bush's attempt to revamp Social Security and to contemplating the risk of alienating current or future senior citizens, particularly if Bush's plan involves "recalculating cost-of-living allowances," which is just a less explosive way to say "cutting benefits."

Some Republicans -- notably Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee, who has been in town only a decade -- may not recall past Social Security battles. But others, such as former House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia, definitely do. Some of those with keen memories of those fights still carry scars; others merely remember colleagues whose careers were ended prematurely.

Republican lawmakers can also expect sleepless nights worrying about offending specific constituencies in the course of backing Bush either on taxes; or on slashing funding for domestic programs; or on curbing tax breaks in an effort to reduce the federal budget deficit. Remember, no spending programs got into the federal budget without a constituency. Likewise, no tax break got into the tax code without a constituency -- often a well-financed, well-organized one, fighting tooth and nail to put it there.

No president has almost simultaneously taken on two legislative challenges as great as fundamentally overhauling Social Security and the tax code. Doing so with anemic job-approval ratings -- and in the midst of a very controversial war that is going badly -- is a daunting task. And taken together, the circumstances under which Bush intends to pursue his second-term agenda don't provide a lot of political cover for the worried lawmakers in his party.

And then there are the Democrats, licking their wounds from November. They've perfected the art of getting 48 or 49 percent of the presidential popular vote and falling a bit short of majorities in the House and Senate. They run the risk of becoming perpetual losers, with a self-defeating mentality to match.

Some Democrats are wondering how Tom Daschle of South Dakota managed to become the first Senate party leader in a half-century to lose a bid for re-election and how much of a role his being portrayed as an obstructionist played in his loss. Did Daschle just display all-around poor political judgment, putting himself squarely in the Republicans' crosshairs on a wide variety of issues?

The risk of getting painted as obstructionists is very real for Democrats. If Democrats miscalculate, as they try to calibrate just the right level and manner of opposition, their party will risk repeating the 2004 South Dakota result -- but on a larger scale.

It's one thing for Democrats to throw monkey wrenches into the Republican machinery; it is something else to get caught doing it. Democrats need to pick the right fights, rather than continually oppose Bush and his party just because objecting feels good, or because they think they can get away with it.

Among Democrats, one popular school of thought argues that if Republicans get enough rope, they will hang themselves -- provided Democrats don't get in the way and aren't seen as too partisan. It took Democrats 40 years to become so arrogant that they truly deserved to lose their majority on Capitol Hill. The argument is growing that, in just 10 years, Republicans have gotten to the verge of that level of hubris.

My hunch is that the leadership in both parties and on both sides of the aisle may be sorely tested during this Congress, more so than in the past, as rank-and-file members begin making their own judgments. Those judgments may or may not conform to what their leadership wants them to do.

My sense is that lawmakers in all four quadrants of the Hill may have lost some confidence in leadership decision-making. And the result might be that we will see members a bit more willing to break ranks than they have been in recent years, when party unity has been remarkably high.