Haley Barbour, the former two-term governor of Mississippi and, before that, successful Republican Party chairman, is a candid and witty man who, in newspaper slang, "gives a great quote."
An example: At the most recent Republican National Convention, Barbour identified the political problem GOP nominee Mitt Romney, who'd become a multimillionaire in private equity, had to confront because Democrats had characterized him as "a vulture capitalist who doesn't care about people like you, ships jobs over to China, fires people, takes their wives' health insurance away (and is) a plutocrat ... married to a known equestrian." That was — and remained until the polls closed — Romney's biggest liability.
Before he was governor or national party chairman, young Barbour was political director in President Ronald Reagan's White House. He regularly reminds fellow Republicans of what the Gipper told him then: "Remember, a fellow who agrees with you 80 percent of the time is your friend and ally; he is not a 20 percent traitor."
House Republicans, most especially the 40 or so who make up the take-no-prisoners House Freedom Caucus, either have never heard that Reagan-Barbour wisdom or have just rejected it as impure and morally unacceptable. Political parties, of which the GOP is one, are coalitions. They are not churches or private clubs where membership is withheld until you give your complete assent to each and every theological or ideological position for which there is a litmus test.
Political parties — which thrive by seeking and welcoming converts, as opposed to hunting down and banishing heretics — are formed to win elections and to move forward public policies that the coalition (that is, the party) agrees upon. So politics, which has been rightly defined as the art of the possible, is always about addition, not subtraction.
The House Freedom Caucus chooses to ignore the much more than 80 percent it agrees with House Speaker John Boehner on and instead trashes the Republican speaker as an amoral collaborator with the "enemy" — who, make no mistake about it, is the one U.S. president of the past 10 who has twice won a majority of the popular vote but who, to so many on the fevered right, remains somehow illegitimate — Barack Obama.
Dealing with the Obama White House is not a matter of personal preference for Boehner. It is a constitutional responsibility he cannot shirk. With control of the House and the Senate, the Republicans control Capitol Hill — which is significant, especially in determining federal spending. But the rest of the federal government is controlled by the Democrats and Obama — who has the power of the veto, which means he needs only 34 senators or 146 representatives to prevail over the Republican majority.
When Republicans threaten to or actually do close down the federal government, even over a matter of deep conviction, then their party is seen by voters as a party not capable of governing the nation. That is exactly what happened when a new Republican House majority, under Speaker Newt Gingrich, closed the government in 1995 and became so politically toxic that the Republican presidential nominee in 1996, Bob Dole — in order to distance himself from the GOP House — was forced to resign as Republican leader of the U.S. Senate. By running against that same unpopular Republican Congress, President Bill Clinton was able to become the first Democratic president since Franklin Roosevelt to win re-election.
House Republicans would do well to heed Ronald Reagan by way of Haley Barbour: "Remember, a fellow who agrees with you 80 percent of the time is your friend and ally; he is not a 20 percent traitor."
To find out more about Mark Shields and read his past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.