- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 8, 2015


The more things change, the more they stay the same. A week or so after Bob Dole resigned his Senate leadership role and Senate seat to run for president in 1996, he joined me and Lyn Nofziger for breakfast. We had all been friends for many years and could be honest with each other. Mr. Dole loved the Senate and relished his role as majority leader, but felt he couldn’t divide his attention between his responsibilities there and his final shot at the White House.

Mr. Dole was succeeded, of course, by Trent Lott of Mississippi who was perhaps more conservative in an objective sense than Mr. Dole, but who would turn out to be a far less effective Senate leader. As we amiably shared stories, Mr. Dole finally said, “You know, in six months you guys are going to be wishing I was back leading the Senate.” Lyn took a drink of coffee, sat down his cup and replied, “What do you mean, six months.”

Trent Lott is a good man and a conservative. He was part of a truly conservative bipartisan House staff working group in the 1970s while serving as chief of staff to Democratic House Rules Committee Chairman Bill Comer who was, like Mr. Lott, a native of Pascagouls, Mississippi. In 1972 as Chairman Comer prepared to retire, he agreed to back Mr. Lott as his successor and Trent prepared for a race that virtually everyone knew he would win. He remains the only Democratic Congressional candidate to whom I have ever contributed.

But as the announcement deadline approached, the young Mr. Lott went to his mentor and friend to inform him that he just couldn’t bring himself to run as a Democrat as the party was morphing into something inhospitable to conservatives. Mr. Comer assured him that he would have his support even as a Republican, but warned Mr. Lott that if he intended to run as a Republican, he’d “actually have to work.” Trent ran and was elected as a Republican and worked hard as both a congressman and a senator.

By the time he succeeded Mr. Dole as leader, however, he’d become a dedicated institutionalist who while believing he was being true to his core beliefs operated as an insider rather than one dedicated to advancing those beliefs. He listened to his fellow insiders and wouldn’t bring a vote to the floor unless he knew it would pass by a healthy margin. He didn’t realize, as Mr. Dole and a strong earlier Democratic leader knew, that you could win by losing and demonstrating to voters where your party and the other stood on important issues. The American Conservative Union, which has “rated” House and Senate incumbents on their votes for decades had to include an asterisk during the Lott years because there were so few votes in the Senate that reflected the difference between conservatives and liberals.

Conservatives were upset with one they had considered their own to Mr. Lott’s consternation. He once asked me how they could be so upset since he was easily “the most conservative Senate Leader since Bob Taft.” I laughed and said they are upset not with what you believe, “but with what you do between nine and five as Senate leader.”

Retiring House Speaker John Boehner and his Senate counterpart, Kentucky’s Sen. Mitch McConnell are both, like Mr. Lott, conservatives, but their beliefs too often take a back set to the inside game in which they are involved. Like many Washington insiders they have treated voters like just another interest group and a not very sophisticated one at that. They have accomplished much, but they’ve failed to either make issues that change votes and engender loyalty or explain their inside moves to the outsiders who gave them their majorities.

Voters are adults and look to their leaders for, well, leadership. They don’t expect them to accomplish the impossible, but do expect them to go to work every morning dedicated to trying to do what they’ve promised. The problem with the current Republican leadership is that they have never really made much of an effort to take their followers into their confidence or explain how they are trying to do what they were elected to do. They’ve, instead, left the field open to their critics and to those who would exploit their perceived failures for their own advantage.

House Republicans have realized that their next leader must be able to talk not just to them, but to the voters who elect them. That ruled out Kevin McCarthy who didn’t make much sense when he opened his mouth. Now it’s time for them to find someone who can provide them the leadership they need and serve also as an articulate spokesman to those who want to know what their leaders are up to.

If they fail, one can easily imagine a breakfast with Mr. Boehner a few weeks after their new leader moves into his offices at which some conservative informs him that many of those who criticized him wish he were back.

David A. Keene is Opinion editor for The Washington Times.

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