Capitol Hill Films Presents: The Godfather and Dr. No

In the space of a week, the promise and peril of Republican conservative political power are revealed. Promise in the example of a singular hero defying his peers on the basis of principle. Peril in the grim reminder that power continues to corrupt.

While presumptive Democratic nominee Barack Obama maintains a narrow and increasingly fragile lead (inexplicably) over Republican John McCain, the outcome of the coinciding House and Senate elections seem preordained. The “thumping” the GOP received in 2006 was merely a precursor. Interim special elections in the House have already reduced the Republican caucus by three and the leadership has already declared all Republican seats endangered. In the Senate, the historic victory achieved in the mid-term 2002 elections is now cause for lament; the party has the unenviable task of defending 23 seats in an election cycle trending heavily in the Democratic Party’s favor.

Republicans have been able to thwart Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid from ramming a liberal agenda through, but only because the Democrats lack a supermajority. Holding less than 60 seats, the Democratic-led Senate has been stymied for the most part.

Singularly outstanding in this battle has been Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma. A former member of the 1994 House class, Coburn upheld his pledge to leave after three terms. Pressed back into service, he won a hard-fought race for the Senate in 2004 and, since then, has proven a stalwart champion of conservative values in a body where they are seldom upheld.

In particular, Sen. Coburn’s tireless offensive against government waste has earned him the moniker Dr. No, a successor of sorts to the recently deceased Sen. Jesse Helms, who was similarly remembered as Senator No. Akin to Helms, Coburn’s opposition is all that is needed to impede ill-conceived legislation from passing. Sen. Coburn’s legislative maneuvering have held the line for an outgunned GOP and has driven Sen. Reid to fits.

Just this past week, Sen. Reid crafted composite legislation dubbed the “Tomnibus” bill, designed solely to induce Republican defections at the expense of Coburn’s fight against excessive spending. Few votes affirm conservative principles and underscore the possibility of one individual’s ability to make a difference at the same time, but on this occasion, such perseverance was rewarded. Coburn prevailed and the Tomnibus went down to defeat.

On the whole, however, conservatives are still frustrated. The Republican minority has prevented the usual hallmarks of a liberal agenda from being implemented, but neither are conservative goals being advanced by any measure. Between so-called fiscal stimulus packages and housing bailouts, Republicans continue to betray the very same conservative principles that were central to their rise. Worse, as the adage goes, what is a cause becomes a movement, and eventually a racket.

Typifying this in the worst fashion possible is the recently announced indictment of Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska. Stevens is the most senior Republican in the Senate and at point, was third in line for the presidency as the Senate president pro tempore, but this longevity underscores the inevitable pitfall of political success.

On the continent’s frontier with the Arctic Ocean and far away from Washington, Alaska can only be home to rugged individualists (the oil stipend can’t hurt though)1. Stevens became an Alaskan institution by being integral to its transition to statehood. At first, he was an esteemed state-wide leader and then became a power player in Washington. A reliable Republican vote in the Senate, he could be counted on to dependably support corresponding conservative goals.

Until he didn’t.

In contrast to Coburn, who has pledged to serve two terms and no more, Stevens has been unable to relinquish political power or resist the temptation to exercise it on his own behalf. In contrast to Coburn, who has utilized his brief time in Congress to maneuver on behalf of fiscal restraint, Stevens leveraged his lengthy stay into a chairmanship on the Appropriations Committee, where he ruthlessly disregarded pleas for fiscal sanity.

The result was the now infamous “bridge to nowhere,” a symbol of government waste sure to endure and an unmistakable sign Republicans had lost their way.

Throwing a “hissy fit” as the Washington Post aptly derided it, Stevens denounced the amendment striking the money (submitted by the aforementioned Coburn) and threatened to resign on the floor of the Senate:

I will put the Senate on notice -- and I don't kid people -- if the Senate decides to discriminate against our state and take money only from our state, I will resign from this body. … If one senator can decide he'll take all the money from one state to solve a problem of another, that is not a union. That is not equality.

It was as if he assumed the voice of Vito Corleone, the “Godfather,” echoing the self-serving appeal he pitched to his fellow criminal conspirators in the movie:

When have I ever refused an accommodation?

Stevens won as 82 colleagues voted with him. The Don would have been proud.

Which represents the soul of the movement? Which offers hope to the prospects of the party? Neither.

To return to the opening assertion, the two Senators, the possibility of virtue and inevitability of vice, demonstrate for American conservatives the need to remain skeptical as political power is attained and successes extend the duration of that power.

Many political observers are mistakenly confusing the ineptitude of Republican politicians with the bankruptcy and inconsequence of conservative principles. Conservatives are more than the political campaigns and politicians bidding for their support. True, the Republican Party became the vehicle for conservatism after the long walk in the wilderness prior to Buckley and Goldwater, but conservatives have at their discretion to take their votes elsewhere and stand for principle in the place of political practicality.

In the future, perhaps conservatives won’t trade a Toomey, long on conservatism, only because a Specter, is even longer on seniority. As noted previously, Coburn has honorable allies in the House, such as Reps. Pence, Flake, and Ryan, and an episode of creative destruction will serve American conservatives well.

1 To be sure, the durability of conservatism in Alaska was amply demonstrated when Sarah Palin came out of nowhere to defeat long-time political figure and sitting governor, Frank Murkowski, in the last primary. Palin then defied the odds again by beating former governor, Don Knowles. Palin has won accolades for her reform agenda and, along with Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, is heralded as the future of Republican conservatism.

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