News travels fast in Washington, but understanding takes a lot longer. It isn't news that Americans are unhappy with the way things are going.President Bush suffers record low approval. Eighty percent of the country thinks the economy is bad and getting worse. Most want to get out of the costly and endless mess in Iraq. Most are struggling with incomes that can't keep up with soaring prices for gas, food, electricity, health care. One in nine homes is now under water, worth less than its mortgage.
Every politician has learned that people want "change." But understanding what that means takes longer. Americans are looking at a country in serious trouble. We are looking for leaders -- not politicians -- who can bring us together to get things done. This isn't rocket science, but it seems hard to absorb in Washington.
Consider Republicans in Congress. They lost big-time in 2006. Twenty-nine incumbents took a look at the polls and decided it was a good time to retire. They have suffered stunning defeats in special elections in former House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert's district in Illinois and, amazingly, in a Louisiana district previously won by Republicans with overwhelming majorities. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich warns that they are headed for a real disaster if they don't change what they are doing.
Again, pretty obvious stuff. But Rep. John Boehner, the Republican minority leader, clearly doesn't get it. He has put out a slide show reassuring his troops that they can do well this fall. Most of it is about partisan mechanics -- raise money, contribute to the party, coordinate efforts, help one another out. But when it gets to talking about the country and what Americans want, it is clueless.
Boehner sees the election as a marketing challenge. "Our brand is under repair," he says, "but we can bring it back."
How will they do this?
Boehner figures Republicans can win this fall by becoming the party of "change." In a memo sent to every member of the Republican caucus, he wrote, "To the American people, we say that Republicans will deliver the change you deserve." He's intent on rolling out a new agenda this week and next that will capture that mantle.
Huh? Republicans in Congress, backed by Bush's veto threats, have obstructed virtually every reform since Democrats took control in 2007. They have filibustered against providing health care to children, against ending the war in Iraq, against ending subsidies to Big Oil and investing in renewable energy, against negotiating lower prices on prescription drugs
In recent weeks, Boehner has led his party in a policy of delay and distraction, forcing the House to vote repeatedly on motions to adjourn simply to delay votes. Republicans even switched votes on honoring mothers on Mother's Day, simply to put sand in the gears.
Now after months and months of this, Boehner says a new agenda will "re-brand" Republicans as the party of change. Perhaps Americans are as dense as Boehner thinks. Perhaps just a little new paint, a bumper-sticker slogan, a show agenda and bitterly partisan attack politics can once more draw the lines and save Republican incumbents from defeat this fall.
But this year, Americans are tuned in. They know things aren't working. They are looking for leaders, not used-platform salesmen. They know that special interests and partisan posturing have locked up Washington. And they just might not be ready to accept the party of obstruction's election year conversion as the party of change.
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