Republicans may have won big last night, but before they do anything with their newfound clout, they should start thinking small. That’s exactly the opposite of what the permanent Washington establishment - including many of the GOP’s own leaders - will start whispering in their ears once that wave of new congressmen and senators crosses the Potomac.
You can hear it already from The Washington Post’s Slate magazine: “If the new leaders make a big deal about banning ‘earmarks’ - which amount to less than 1 percent of federal spending - count it as a feint. If they propose means-testing Medicare or raising the retirement age, count them as serious.”
To deal with an ethical and budgetary morass that outrages the American people, you see, is a waste of time because the pointless spending is a mere 10 or 15 billion bucks. Serious politicians should deal only with gargantuan issues that will personally impact every American’s life.
Such thinking is a trap. First, in a divided Washington, big things are only going to happen after big compromises. That’s not why Tea Party voters sent new Republicans to Washington, but breaking the bond between a new generation of leaders and their Tea Party backers is exactly why Washington old-timers want 2010’s victors to start bending the knee. Once separated from powerful grass-roots support, new Washington leaders will have to fall back on the money and lobbyists of traditional Washington.
Second, the message of the past three elections is simple: The public does not trust any politician or party to rearrange their world or their lives.
The public is sick of big. From America’s longest war to its most expensive nation-building project to its giant new health entitlement launched by Republicans to the Democrats’ thousand-page laws on health care and consumer finance (soon to be followed by millions of pages of regulations), which will mandate how we’re born to how we die while supervising every financial transaction of our lives in between, no one knows how any of this will turn out a decade from now.
Will Iraq be a stable bulwark of democracy or a reinvigorated source of terror? Will the new credit card rules crush consumer credit and hopes for economic recovery, or do they herald the promised golden age of fairness for the little guy? Such vast interventions with such unknowable consequences quite rightly inspire fear as much as hope.
Plenty of people in politics and journalism think they know how such efforts will work out in the long run, but far-too-frequently-burned voters now demand to verify before they trust.
What the Republican wave on its way to Washington needs to do is take a deep breath and start very small. The earmark reform that Slate so disdains is exactly the kind of small step GOP insurgents can take that will build the trust to do something more.
Banning earmarks isn’t arcane, so the public can understand it and opponents cannot sow fear. The decision to kill earmarks is clear and principled, so demands for compromise will fall flat. Overwhelming majorities of both parties want it, so if Democrats use their remaining levers of power to block it, they will pay a price.
String together a series of such steps, and Republicans can turn the opportunity that voters gave them Tuesday night into a mandate to take the bigger steps the nation so desperately needs.
David Mastio is deputy editorial page editor of The Washington Times.