Why House Republicans Should Listen to Yoda

Republicans are kidding themselves if they think voters will reward them just for trying.

By + More
** ADVANCE FOR WEEKEND OF APRIL 6-8 **This puppet of the "Star Wars" character Yoda is among the 150 items in the exhibit "Star Wars: The Magic of Myth" at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, in the Brooklyn borough of New York, Monday, April 1, 2002. The exhibit runs from April 5 through July 7, 2002.

There's a GOP talking point I've heard a couple of times that I call the "kindergarten theory of politics." It goes something like this: "The American people won't get too upset about gridlock provided that they see we're trying." Everyone's a winner, in other words, so long as they try really hard.

It strikes me as Republicans whistling past the graveyard and the latest batch of polling data from Gallup backs me up. Instead the GOP should keep in mind the Yoda rule of lawmaking: "Try not. Do... or do not. There is no try."

Asked last week about whether the GOP would get hurt politically if it killed comprehensive immigration reform, Rep. Tom Price, the number two Republican on the House Budget Committee, said among other things that:

I think what the American people want is to see individuals working to solve challenges. I think that the House Republicans will demonstrate as a conference and as a body that we have positive solutions for the challenge of both legal and illegal immigration. And we will be putting those forward. ... I think people will see that we're working to solve the challenge.

[ See a collection of political cartoons on the Republican Party.]

And speaking at the Bipartisan Policy Center yesterday, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush made a similar argument:

I think the system will be blamed, not one party or the other if both parties are engaged. …  It would be hard to imagine if Republicans in the House pass a bill and you can't forge a consensus in the conference committee for whatever reason that someone could be blamed politically. I'm sure there will be efforts to try, but I think making a good faith effort … is very helpful in that regard.

At worst, in other words, failure to pass immigration reform will bring a pox on both houses, not just the GOP's.

But this week's Gallup survey about Congress shows that the American people aren't that interested in trying. They're interested in doing. "Americans' high level of disapproval is less about what Congress is doing than about what it isn't doing: putting aside partisan bickering and getting things done," Gallup's Lydia Saad reported earlier this week. Asked why they disapprove of Congress – and in case you hadn't heard, Congress's approval rating has reached a record low of only 10 percent – 59 percent named an issue having to do with ineffectiveness and/or gridlock. Majorities of Democrats (65 percent) and Republicans (54 percent) named inaction as the main reason they disapprove of Congress.

[ See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

And what about points for trying? According to Gallup 16 percent of Americans approve of Congress; of that number, a bit over one in four (28 percent) cited a reason related to lawmakers making an effort. So were I a Republican strategist, I might cast about for a better talking point than the idea that they're trying really, really hard.

Of course, Bush might be right on one count. Suppose the Senate passes a comprehensive immigration bill with a path to citizenship and it gets, say, 70 votes, including a fair number of Republicans, but it then dies in conference committee – the group from both chambers tasked with hammering out a compromise between House and Senate versions of a bill – because the House GOP won't abide by a path to citizenship. While the facts might say that House Republicans killed the bill, there is large contingent of the media and commentary class so invested in the idea of either balance or postpartisanship that it might well be denounced as typical gridlock rather than one party obstinacy.