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Mark Shields: A Real Republican Wiseman

Former congressman offers political insights on campaign 2010 and its consequences

If it was my responsibility to organize a national Republican campaign (admittedly, a highly unlikely possibility) and could make only two phone calls for advice, one of those calls, I can be sure, would be to former six-term Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va.

Mark Shields
Mark Shields

Davis, who voluntarily left his suburban Virginia district in 2006, was the respected chairman of the House Republican campaign committee, four years earlier, when for the first time in 68 years (since President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first term), the party controlling both the House of Representatives and the White House successfully increased its House majority in the president’s first midterm election. So, I decided to seek in the closing days of President Barack Obama’s first midterm election Davis’ distilled wisdom on campaign 2010 and its consequences.

What about the universally expected Republican victories? According to Davis: “This race has not been about the Republicans; it has been about the Democrats. The 2010 election is not an affirmative endorsement of my party. We are simply an instrument for voters to use as a protest.”

He reminded me of the similarities between 2010 and the year he was elected to Congress — 1994, the first midterm election of the last Democratic president, Bill Clinton: “That year, voters elected me — and the first Republican House in 40 years — to protect them from Bill Clinton. Two years later, voters re-elected Bill Clinton to protect them from me and the House Republican majority.”

Divided government — with one party controlling the White House and the other controlling at least the House or the Senate — has been lately the rule rather than the exception. “For 38 of the past 60 years, voters have given us divided government,” Davis noted. “This election has been about putting a check on the Obama administration and the Democrats in Congress.”

He has not been surprised at the “revolt against the nation’s political establishment of both parties,” citing the upset primary victories of Republican insurgents against the party-backed Senate candidates in Alaska, Colorado, Delaware, Kentucky and Utah. Davis thinks it only logical after the failed political record of the last decade beginning with “9/11, followed by two failed wars, a national economic meltdown and a dysfunctional political system.”

So what lies ahead? Davis sees “gridlock on steroids. ... I believe it’s going to get more polarized before it gets better.” One reason for the increased polarization, according to Davis, is that the two parties are now defined and divided more “along cultural and values lines. It is much harder to compromise on differences in values than on economic differences.”

Much will depend on the reaction of Obama to the newly emboldened Republican opposition. “Which course do you think is more likely?” Davis asked. “Will the president be bold and seek to set the Republicans as obstructionists, or will he emerge as a ‘moderate to win back the middle’?”

But Republicans, according to this former party leader, are “not in any mood to compromise” — especially after they have seen what happened (in party primary defeats) to their colleagues who did so and were branded collaborators. Davis thinks that Obama will conclude he has “to demonize the Republican Congress.”

Still, he holds out hope: “Divided government can be a good thing when leaders can step forward and step out of their (partisan) boxes in order to get things done.” Davis was in office when Democrat Clinton and a Republican House passed welfare reform and managed to achieve the first balanced federal budgets in the past 40 years.

But Davis believes that what lies ahead immediately is “going to be a nasty period.” I have learned from firsthand experience, don’t bet against the political insights of Davis, an authentic Republican wiseman.

Mark Shields is one of the most widely recognized political commentators in the United States. The former Washington Post editorial columnist appears regularly on CNN, on public television and on radio. Click here to contact him.

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