Strength in Disunity

By DAVID BROOKS

New York Times

November 23, 2004

Three weeks ago the Republicans won an impressive victory. So what have they been doing since?

First, they had an intraparty argument over whether to keep Arlen Specter as Senate Judiciary chairman. Then they had an anguished intraparty dispute over whether to bend their rules to protect Tom DeLay. Then on Saturday, they had a long, heated debate about intelligence reform, which ended with 80 to 100 House Republicans defeating or at least stalling a bill that was strongly supported by President Bush and the Congressional leaders.

Forget the Democrats. Bush's biggest problem over the next few years will be keeping his Republican majority together.

Republicans have banded together over the past few years because of the war and the need to re-elect the president. But that's over. The Congressional horses are spitting out the bits.

Three dynamics are going to erode G.O.P. discipline. First, there is a general sense in Congress that it is time to equalize the power relationship between the branches of government. The attacks of Sept. 11 elevated the status of the executive branch. The president leads in times of war. But Republicans in Congress won elections of their own and have just as much right as he to shape policy. On Saturday, two House chairmen stood athwart the presidential juggernaut and shouted no.

Second, many Republicans feel they sacrificed so the president could win this year, but the season of sacrifice is over. Dozens of conservatives voted for the No Child Left Behind Act, which they disliked, because the president wanted an education bill. Many more voted for a prescription drug bill they detested so Bush could have a victory on that. But the White House can't use the argument that "the president needs this for his campaign" anymore.

Third, there are important disagreements within the G.O.P. on every big issue on the horizon. There are disagreements on immigration, education, tax reform and the (vaguely defined) "ownership society." In the Senate, Bill Frist is serious about restricting the use of the filibuster to block judicial nominations. Some Republicans think that's a terrible idea.

The divisions are deepest on Social Security. About 50 House Republicans don't want to mess with it at all. Those who support reform fall into rival factions. One group thinks you need some benefit cuts to pay for the transition to private accounts. The other opposes what it calls this Darmanesque, root canal approach.

In short, many Republicans feel that the expanded majority gives them the chance to finally win on issues they are passionate about, but they have fundamentally different views on what winning means.

My friends in the commentariat are worried about the rise of the conformist yes-men allegedly surrounding the president. But the real challenge will be disunity, not mind-numbing conformity. The Republicans will be acting more like a normal majority party - with long periods of fractious disagreement interrupted by short bursts of emotional party unity (the fights for Supreme Court nominations, for example).

How to cope? Newt Gingrich is reminding his former colleagues that this fractiousness is normal. He adds that it is important for the president to focus attention on three large challenges so that the party doesn't get bogged down in the inevitable day-to-day fights. He also says it is a mistake for the president to try to lean hard on members of Congress. Bush should go straight to the country to build support for his big initiatives.

"Individual members of Congress find it easy to stand up to the president," Gingrich says. "They find it difficult to stand up to voters."

I'd add that the president is going to find himself confronting a paradox: the bigger G.O.P. majorities will make it harder to establish one-party rule. The president will find that with Congressional Republicans increasingly discordant and assertive, he can't pass major legislation with Republican votes alone. On issues like, say, Social Security, he'll lose some Republicans whichever way he turns. He'll have to compensate by building unlikely coalitions of the willing, including some Democrats.

So the Republican win may actually mean less one-party dominance. Which would conform to my general approach to life: that everything turns out to be the opposite from what you expect.