Magazine article Politics Magazine

The High Price of Disunity

Magazine article Politics Magazine

The High Price of Disunity

Article excerpt

It might sound strange to hear from a man who made his name in politics as the fearsome House Republican whip, but if you want to know the truth, counting yeas and nays in the days and hours before a floor vote is possibly the least important activity that goes into passing legislation.


I saw my job as whip the way Vince Lombardi viewed coaching. Members of his famed Green Bay Packers teams used to joke that their brilliant, obsessively prepared coach was invaluable to the team's success between Monday and Saturday--but come Sunday, he was the most useless man in the stadium. Someone else called the offensive and defensive plays, and everybody knew their job and did it to perfection. Lombardi prepared his team so well during the week that they didn't need him come game time.

I like to think that when members arrived in the chamber for a big vote, I wasn't quite useless on the floor, but there's no doubt that 99 percent of my work should have been done long before the buzzers started ringing through the Capitol. My principal job as whip wasn't counting votes on Thursday afternoon but securing them weeks, and perhaps even months, earlier.

And that's where I'd tackle some things differently if I had it to do over. I'd have worked harder and smarter to unify the disparate parts of our political coalition, both on and off the Hill, to inform, unify and activate individuals and organizations around the conservative policies we represented.

Not that I didn't try to do just that. Over my time in leadership, I honed a new approach to my job--what we called "growing the vote," an effort to work with the divergent factions of the Republican coalition, including the moderates, each type of conservative, the vulnerable members who needed political cover and even the ornery ones who didn't want to play in our game. We won some amazing legislative victories with this model, but when it came down to the political fights off the floor, including defending our conservative legislative record, "growing the vote" simply could not translate to "growing the movement."

Under my watch as whip and then House majority leader, we got some big things accomplished. But beneath the surface the conservative movement was fractured and the Reagan coalition was increasingly subject to infighting. One of the biggest challenges to a successful political coalition is how quickly allies of necessity turn into competitors of choice. The Reagan coalition, as has been noted in many places, consisted primarily of three kinds of conservatives: social conservatives, economic conservatives and national security conservatives. As long as all three were being summarily ignored--and, indeed, attacked--by the ruling Democrats on Capitol Hill, all three groups banded together against the common enemy.

Very soon after our takeover of Congress, however, the three groups began to see each other not as kindred spirits, but as competitors for the new congressional leadership's attention. National security conservatives thought tax cuts and regulatory reform were all well and good, so long as they came along after the Pentagon was taken care of. Social conservatives almost always lean to the right on economic and defense policy, but what they really wanted to know was what we were going to do about gun control, abortion and homosexual marriage. Likewise, economic conservatives--even more than the other two--generally see social and security issues as subordinate to fiscal and regulatory policy.

What our congressional and political leadership teams failed to do was to make our component parts understand that their particular success on the floor depended entirely on the overall success of the entire coalition. …

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