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Very Retiring Republicans By: Fred Barnes
The Weekly Standard | Wednesday, July 02, 2008


Democrats John Conyers, John Dingell, and Charles Rangel were in the wilderness from 1994 to 2006, the years of Republican rule of the House of Representatives. They endured the shame of being in the minority. Then Democrats regained control of the House, and, at age 77, Conyers became chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. It was his second stint as committee chairman. Dingell got back the chairmanship of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which he'd held earlier for 14 years. He was 80. And when Rangel became chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee last year, he was 76.

What kept them from retiring after 1994 was their expectation that Democrats would win back the House quickly (they were wrong about that). Now Republicans in the House have the opposite expectation. They believe the prospects of a Republican revival in the foreseeable future are exceedingly poor. So 30 of them, including some of the party's brightest stars, are retiring. Four have already quit, resigning rather than finishing out their final term.

This is a serious problem for Republicans in the 2008 election. The retirees have created an unusually large number of open Republican seats, exciting Democrats. Defeating incumbents is difficult, but open seats are easier for the opposition party to win. Here are the stories of four Republicans who are retiring.

The Dealmaker. Jim McCrery of Louisiana, the senior Republican on Ways and Means, came close to retiring in 2004. He rebuffed pleas by President Bush and Vice President Cheney that he run for reelection. But his wife, who lived with his two sons in their home in Shreveport, intervened. Knowing that his goal was to be Ways and Means chairman, she urged him to stay in Congress and said she and the boys would live in Washington. The result: They moved and he ran and won.

When Democrats took over after the 2006 election, McCrery, 57, figured he could still play a significant role on major issues like Social Security and tax reform and perhaps even Medicare. His strong relationship with Rangel, the new chairman, gave him encouragement. He spent four months in 2007 negotiating secretly with Rangel. "Charlie and I made some progress working together" on overhauling Social Security and the tax code, McCrery says. Then Rangel informed him that their efforts were for naught. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had ruled out any compromise with Republicans on these issues.

That left McCrery with a minimal role and little hope of a larger one any time soon. "Prospects for the '08 election reversing the Democratic majority don't look particularly bright," he says. If he had to wait 12 years, as the Democrats did, he'd be 70 before his shot at the Ways and Means chairmanship-too long. "It just seemed like the right time [to retire]," he says. This time, after 20 years in Congress, he's not changing his mind.

The Uniter. Ray LaHood of Illinois says his favorite time in the House was when he co-chaired four "bipartisan summits" that brought together Republican and Democratic House members, with their spouses and children, at a retreat outside Washington. The first in 1995 drew 200 members, 150 spouses, and 100 kids. "Those are the kinds of things where people develop relationships beyond Congress," he said.

The idea was to spur bipartisanship, which LaHood says is "the only way to get things done." But the last summit was held in 2001. LaHood and his Democratic co-chair tried to organize a fifth one in 2003, but "the sentiment to do a big retreat was not there."

LaHood's district is famous, having been represented by Abraham Lincoln, Everett Dirksen, and Bob Michel. His face became well known when he presided over the House impeachment of President Clinton. Elected in 1994, he says, "I don't like being in the minority. It's no fun." But that's not why he's leaving. "Frankly, I'm 62 and I want to get out of the rat race."

The Pol. Tom Reynolds of New York is 57 and has been in elective office for 35 years. He was a member of the Republican class of 1998 and rose to become part of the House leadership and chairman of the campaign arm of the House Republicans. His misfortune was to have had the campaign post in 2006.

"I'm a conservative Republican in a moderate district in a liberal state," Reynolds says. And times have changed, especially in New York. Democrats might reapportion him out of a district in 2012 and, besides, "I never intended to serve in Congress in my 70s."

Reynolds was minority leader in the state assembly when he was talked into running for the House. "I ran for Congress to be in the majority, and I've enjoyed every single minute of it." But that's gone. To win the House again, Republicans will have to build up their party in New England, New York, and the Upper Midwest, Reynolds says. "We can do it, but I don't think it's a quick fix."

The Moderate. Tom Davis of Virginia is one of the smartest politicians in either party and a shrewd analyst of political trends. But his talents have been underappreciated by Virginia Republicans. He was ready to run for the open Virginia Senate seat this year and use a primary to build statewide recognition. But the party decided on a nominating convention to thwart him, and Davis, who had the best chance of keeping the seat for Republicans, bowed out.

Davis, 59, was also elected in 1994 and finds his first taste of minority status unappealing. The House today, he says, "is not a very nice place to be." He has three kids in college, he says, "and two more years in the House is not going to help my marketability. If I'm going to leave, this is the right time, the time to do something else." So he'll take a private sector job, probably in Washington. He calls it "a sabbatical."

Might these Republicans one day regret their decision to retire? McCrery muses about a failed Barack Obama presidency, pulled down by tax hikes and excessive spending and too many favors for organized labor. If that happens, Republicans could do as well in 2010 as they did in 1994. "If I thought I had a better than 50-50 chance of being chairman next year, I'd run," he says. But he's not running precisely because he doesn't think that.


Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.


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