WILLIAMS: Are Republicans ready to lead?

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OPINION/ANALYSIS:

We are nearly a year into the Obama presidency now. Yet, with each passing day, this administration becomes increasingly focused on the issues that matter less, not more, to the average man on the street. Instead of building on big ideas with concrete details and personal leadership, the White House has chosen to focus instead on its fringe agenda.

Hey, it’s tough to ignore a group that clamors and mews every day of the week and twice on Sunday. But gays in the military? The Olympics coming to Mob Town, USA? And better still, declaring war against a television network? These are our new national priorities? Just because Keith Olbermann, Rachel Maddow and MSNBC don’t talk about Iran or the federal deficit, it doesn’t mean the White House should squint its eyes to these issues.

There’s no question 2010 is not coming into focus as White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel sketched it. Unemployment is hovering at double-digit levels, despite a cash infusion into the economy so large Donald Trump would blush with embarrassment. President Obama’s own approval numbers are bogged down by a frustrated electorate looking for any sign that the debt he foisted on their great-grandchildren’s backs will pay dividends today.

And whatever happened to those promises to withdraw from Iraq and to close Guantanamo Bay?

Congressional Democrats must now face the consequences of the sins of their political father, and many are bracing for a day of reckoning of biblical proportions unless some issues turn again in their favor. Political analyst and election predictor extraordinaire, Charlie Cook, doesn’t see that happening so long as unemployment remains more than 9 percent.

Writing in “Cook Political Report” last week, Mr. Cook estimates that a dozen Senate seats and 110 House seats are potentially in play, with 75 of them held by Democrat incumbents. “Remember that open seats accounted for 40 percent of Democratic losses in 1994, the last Republican-wave election,” he writes. “The number of Democratic retirements in competitive districts could make the difference between a bad night and a horrible night for the party.”

In less than eight months, Democrats have made the 2010 elections a footrace. A Gallup poll from earlier this month showed support by political independents steadily shifting from Democrats to Republicans, with the Republicans now favored 45 percent to 36 percent. Less than four months ago, independents were evenly divided. Exacerbating the problem for the Democrats is their sagging congressional approval overall. The same Gallup survey showed just 21 percent of Americans approve of the Democrat-led institution, with a full 72 percent disapproving.

The balance-of-power question in Washington now may be one of “when,” not “if,” for the Republicans. In the wake of the 2008 cycle, analysts from all stripes thought the Republicans would be doomed to wander in the wilderness of the minority for at least a decade, if not longer. Today, that timeline appears to have narrowed considerably. But are they ready for such responsibility? If the recent past is prologue, I’m not optimistic.

The Republican Party has failed to exert bold leadership. Too often the party seems more focused on criticizing its enemies than on conceptualizing new policy objectives. Most disconcerting is the Republicans’ lack of fiscal leadership.

House Republican Leader John A. Boehner recently summed up this sanguine attitude when he wrote, “Republicans lost our way on fiscal responsibility when we held the majority in Congress. Since then, we have held firm to our commitment to show the American people we learned our lesson by offering better solutions to hold the line on spending, rein in red ink and get the nation’s fiscal house in order.”

Tough talk indeed, but unlike most things in this town, that talk is cheap unless it can be backed up. It’s easy to stake principled ground when you lack the authority and power to act on those principles. But what happens when Republicans are suddenly thrust again on the leadership stage?

In his last term in office, President George W. Bush increased discretionary spending - spending that has nothing to do with national defense - by almost half. The so-called party of fiscal conservatives outspent President Bill Clinton across the board, only reinforcing the old adage that every politician who campaigns on fiscal conservatism quickly abandons that rhetoric as soon as he or she comes to power. Did the Republicans think we wouldn’t notice?

The world economy depends upon a fiscally solvent United States. But an economically healthy U.S. can’t exist on paper only. It’s almost as if congressional leaders have accepted that the American empire is sputtering to ruin and so they enter a state of denial, arguing “it’s just on paper” and that new spending initiatives are “just rounding errors.”

That’s weak-minded rationalization, not leadership. It is here that the trepidation of independent voters is most evident. And the party that acts on their long-term concerns over spending will hold the majority for a generation.

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