The new Republican majority in the House is going to have to live with the Ghost of Christmas Past. The haunting words they will keep hearing on cold January nights and beyond came from President Obama's last press briefing before the Christmas holiday.
Asked to preview his unprecedented relationship with a Republican controlled House, the president used words that will weigh on the opposition party. “You know, my sense is the Republicans recognize that with greater power is going to come greater responsibility,” the president said. “And some of the progress that I think we saw in the lame duck was a recognition on their part that people are going to be paying attention to what they're doing, as well as what I’m doing and what the Democrats in Congress are doing."
The president’s words dragged Republicans away from the happy-go-lucky days as backbenchers who denied any accountability for federal government’s success or failures for first two years of his administration.
Republicans spent their time demonizing Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the House under the Democrat’s majority, and bashing President Obama as a big government liberal who did not keep his administration’s promise to reduce unemployment.
The closest the GOP came to spelling out ideas for how to better run the government came in the form of a much anticipated book by young Republicans, the “Pledge,” that even among fellow Republicans never lived up to the hype.
Now the challenge for the Republicans is go beyond any pledge to actually governing. Yes, there will be investigations complete with embarrassing questions for administration officials. But the odds are against the second coming of Watergate unless the press missed some really big shenanigans by Obama’s czars and secret socialists.
But independent voters who swung heavily to the Republican column in November to give the GOP control of the House are likely to have little patience with time consuming hearings when they are expecting to see results on serious issues like job creation, deficit reduction and even immigration policy. And still another big test of leadership that all Americans will be watching is what will happen to what's left of No Child Left Behind, no called, "Race to the Top" by the Obama administration.
Even bigger trouble lurks in the form of the Tea Party, the energizing force that sent so many of the new Republican faces to Washington. The Republicans are trying to immediately feed the Tea Party with promises of repealing the president’s health care plan. But even Tea Party die-hards know there is no chance of an actual repeal with Democrats retaining the majority of the Senate and president holding the power of the veto.
So all the focus on repeal opens the Republican Party up to charges of playing the Tea Party for fools. Rep. Rosa DeLauria (D-Conn.) is already calling the GOP act a "kabuki dance," – a pretty game of pretense in which the performers are hidden behind masks and get lots of TV time for their dramatic gestures but nothing much gets done.
If Democrats are able to mock Republicans right out of the box Republicans are in serious trouble. They are also giving Democrats a running start at finally explaining the benefits of health care reform.
Democrats will be able to lay out the goodies in the legislation such as how it keeps insurance companies from interfering with decisions most people prefer to keep between themselves and their doctors. The Democrats might also mention that their plan protects you from being denied insurance coverage when you get cancer or any other catastrophic illness and helps your college grad keep his or her health insurance until they get a job.
Do Republicans really want to give Democrats center stage to talk about the benefits of the Obama plan? Are they really going to prove that the Congressional Budget Office is corrupt in estimating that the plan is going to cut the deficit? And what entitlement programs is the new Republican majority willing to cut?
Nancy Pelosi asked just that question yesterday at her final press conference as Speaker. She seemed quite content to be in attack mode on the spending issue, promising to Republicans' feet to the fire even on an issue that was a winner for them Republicans during the 2010 campaign.
The challenge for Republicans will be to avoid falling into the Democrats’ trap of wasting time with political arguments when voters are looking for good ideas to revive trust in the federal government.
But the biggest challenge remains avoiding a trap of their own making, getting lost in frightful remembrances of their own campaign rhetoric when they said they had all the answers if only those terrible Democrats would listen. Now Republican insurgents may think back and wish they had done more than just say no and promise to obstruct every Democrat-backed plan until the day they could regain control of the House.
Well, that day is here. The first few weeks with the new Speaker and all the young fresh faces in the Republican ranks are sure to result in a honeymoon between Republicans, the voters and the media. But honeymoons do end. And the ghosts of past promises can hang around to haunt politicians for a very long time.
The best hope for Republicans is to promise to do better than their past and get serious about the business of governing.
Juan Williams is a writer and Fox News political analyst. His most recent book is "Enough: The Phony Leaders, Dead-End Movements, and Culture of Failure That Are Undermining Black America--and What We Can Do About It."