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Politics & Poker: Are These GOP Faces Really Agents of Change?

How can Sen. Mitch McConnell and Rep. John Boehner plausibly present themselves as agents of change?

The two Minority Leaders are insiders’ insiders, with 46 years as Members of Congress between them (McConnell is also a former Senate aide).

The Kentucky Senator is, physically and by temperament, a man of Capitol Hill, the spouse of a former Cabinet secretary. And the Ohio Congressman, despite his humble beginnings, brings to mind the old W.C. Fields line, “I need a lawyer — let’s go to the golf course.”

American voters are angry, and they may well hand the keys to the Capitol back to the Republicans. But if they do, it will be in spite of, not because of, Boehner and McConnell. Are these guys equipped to lead the second coming of the Republican revolution? Or will they be swept along by tea party fury — which could turn on them as quickly as it turned on President Barack Obama and the Democrats?

Of course, how much change, institutionally, did the Democrats truly offer voters in 2006? Yes, voters had had enough of President George W. Bush and the Congressional GOP crowd by then, and in installing Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) as Speaker (and two years later, Obama as president), Democrats were clearly making history. But House Democrats also served up voters a menu of septuagenarian committee chairmen who had been in Washington, D.C., so long they might as well have taken up residence in Statuary Hall. Most of the party’s promising young Members, in the public eye anyway, seemed lost in the back benches.

House Republicans have done a decent job of showcasing some of their appealing younger Members, such as Reps. Eric Cantor (Va.), Paul Ryan (Wis.), Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) and Cathy McMorris Rodgers (Wash.). But if they take over, even with their internal term limits, many of their new committee chairmen could be old committee chairmen.

On the Senate side, most of the dynamic Republicans, the people who drive the agenda — love them or hate them — are not the party leaders or committee ranking members, but rather the bomb throwers such as Sens. Jim DeMint (S.C.) and Tom Coburn (Okla.). Would that trend continue if the GOP grabbed the majority? And if the Democrats lose control of one or both chambers of Congress this fall, who’s really to blame? The Democrats, for overreaching, overtaxing and overspending? Or the voters — for expecting miracles, refusing to make sacrifices and essentially not knowing what they want? You could understand it when the GOP finally took control of the House after 40 years in 1994, or when the Democrats regained control after a dozen years in 2006. But do you really throw out the party in charge after just four years — and just two years of the Obama presidency?

Maybe, just maybe, the two-party system is broken, with both Democrats and Republicans incapable of offering coherent, workable solutions and a government free from the suffocating influence of money and special interests.

When you hear that the health care reform and banking reform bills are both thousands of pages long, you know something has gone haywire — and that somebody is being taken care of who shouldn’t be. The oil spill disaster in the Gulf of Mexico is a perfect metaphor for everything that is going wrong in this country right now: The nation is spiraling out of control and our leaders’ solution is to shove garbage and toxic chemicals down the gaping hole.

OK, to fill the rest of this column, it’s time to borrow a hackneyed columnist’s convention, popularized by the late, great New York sports scribe Jimmy Cannon, for dashing off short, punchy observations.

Nobody asked me, but:

• Rahm Emanuel, David Axelrod and David Plouffe aren’t looking like geniuses anymore, are they? If they can get Alexi Giannoulias off the Senate ballot in Illinois, or pull victory out of a hat for him, it’ll be time to reassess that statement.

• Will Pelosi stay and fight if Republicans regain control of the House next year, or will she pull a move like former Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and go home? Would Democrats even want her to be their leader if they slip back into the minority?

• Was anyone else surprised that Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (Fla.) was among the five House Republicans who voted for the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” last week? When you examine her record, you shouldn’t be. While she may be a loyal conservative on most issues, there is a substantial gay population in and around her Miami-area district and down in the Florida Keys, and she has often supported gay rights legislation and greater funding to fight HIV and AIDS.

Perhaps more surprising was that two moderate House Republicans who are running for Senate in Democratic states voted against the repeal: Mark Kirk in Illinois and Mike Castle in Delaware.

• Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal’s stunning 25-point lead over Republican Linda McMahon in a Senate poll last week despite his lying about his military record is a testament to something. Some pundits have suggested that Blumenthal’s long record of service and the voters’ familiarity with him trumps the fallout from what he said about serving in Vietnam and what he actually did.

But couldn’t the showing also be a cautionary tale for Republicans, that candidates who come off a little kooky and a little too angry — even with fortunes to spend — may flame out at the polls this year? Blumenthal’s lead in the Quinnipiac University poll was just as imposing over former Rep. Rob Simmons (R) — himself a war hero, and now an ex-candidate. But it’s easy to argue that Simmons would have been the much stronger contender in November.

• Andrew Cuomo’s decision to promote little-known Rochester Mayor (and former police chief) Robert Duffy as his running mate in New York’s gubernatorial election cuts both ways. Assuming Duffy wins his own primary for lieutenant governor, New York Democrats will have an all-white ticket for statewide offices this fall, and given the political implosion of outgoing Gov. David Paterson (D) and Cuomo’s own strained history with the state’s African-American leaders, that could depress minority turnout. It may not matter, though, with Empire State Republicans as dysfunctional as ever.

What’s more, having two white Catholics at the top of the ticket, Cuomo and Duffy, will undoubtedly bolster freshman Rep. Michael McMahon (D) in Staten Island. And any kind of higher-than-average Democratic turnout in the Rochester area may keep former Rep. Eric Massa’s House seat in the “D” column after all is said and done.

• Word of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s political demise may have been premature.

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