OXFORD – Middle America wants better performance by the federal government and Middle America has given the Republican Party center stage.
Three Mississippians – returning U.S. Rep. Gregg Harper of District 3 along with newly elected Rep. Alan Nunnelee of District 1 and Rep. Steven Palazzo of District 4 – are in the thick of it.
There’s been a shallow but consistent media chorus since midterm elections. The story line has been, “Why did Americans turn against Obama?” and “Why did voters change their minds?”
Bogus questions, both of them. Voters didn’t turn against Obama. And voters certainly have not changed their minds.
Let’s define Middle America as the voters who swing elections. They dwell between the extremes of liberalism and conservatism. Two years ago, Middle America embraced Barack Obama’s rising star and accepted his pledge to be a president for all the people – one who would focus on the economy and bring federal spending under control. (He really did make those pledges.) Middle America also responded to his promise to bring rationality, equity and cost controls to the delivery of health care and to resolve immigration issues, among many other things. Yes, Obama was a “liberal,” but he was solution-oriented. That resonated.
Obama’s rival for the White House, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., called his opponent “naïve,” but Americans not only backed the far more charismatic candidate, they also provided President Obama with clear Democratic majorities in both chambers of Congress. Media folk called this a big victory for liberalism. Wrong. It was a big endorsement of problem-solving.
In the two years since, Middle America has not undergone a giant shift in its collective ideology. Only the most simplistic talk show hosts would suggest that has happened. Lefties are still lefties. Righties are still righties. What Middle America wants is solutions.
So what that means is that Republicans – even without control of the White House or the Senate – must either deliver in the next two years or it will be their turn to decide who gets invited to farewell parties.
Within the party itself, there are divisions.
Harper, Nunnelee and Palazzo have aligned with the super-conservative core of the GOP.
Harper, from Pearl, went to Washington at the same time Obama did. Regarding the $787 billion stimulus bill, Harper had a great quote. When trying to get out of a hole, a good first step is to stop digging, he said in voting “no.” He was re-elected to a second term to deliver the same “stop spending” message. (Interestingly, Harper has been chastised for voting against new spending that would have benefitted Mississippi. Nothing like knocking a guy for doing what he said he’d do.)
Nunnelee, from Tupelo, managed Mississippi’s money as chairman of the Appropriations Committee in the state Senate. Although he and Palazzo don’t take office until January, Nunnelee is on the record with other incoming House Republicans to stop earmarks immediately. (For the record, Obama also pledged to review earmarks “line by line,” yet has signed off on hundreds.)
Palazzo also goes to the U.S. House from the Mississippi Legislature where his anti-tax, pro-business and family values record was well established as a member of the House from Harrison County.
What’s especially noteworthy about Nunnelee and Palazzo is that both defeated consistently conservative incumbents, Travis Childers and Gene Taylor, who happened to be Democrats.
And that brings us to this: It has been clear for a while that the struggle that will make the difference in the next Congress will not be between Republicans and Democrats. It will be inside the Republican Party between the arch-conservatives and the more pragmatic members, sometimes derisively called RINOs or Republicans in Name Only.
These are heady days for the far right. The Tea Party-driven freshmen have every right to believe they have a slash and burn mandate. It will take them into a brick wall, however, and the sooner Harper, Nunnelee and Palazzo recognize that, the better for Mississippi.
Battle-tested Republicans, including U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., know that neither political extreme has the clout to enforce its will on the other. There’s no way the new guys should compromise on principles, but Middle America will become just as frustrated with them as it did with the Democrats if they don’t deliver.
The way to make the people happy is to fix what’s broken and fixing what’s broken means crafting legislation that (1) Middle America understands and (2) in which Middle America has confidence.
It’s easier said than done, of course.
But folks need to stop saying voters changed. It’s just not true.
Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at Box 1, University, MS 38677, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.