Tuesday’s elections swept Republicans across America into office, but what do freshly elected Republicans need to do next?
1) Realize They’ve Not Sold the American People
Victorious Republicans should enjoy their election victory, but they should also understand it does not mean that the American people have bought wholesale into conservative political philosophy, as is so tempting to believe after a big election. After George W. Bush’s victory in 2004, Hugh Hewitt wrote Painting the Map Red. After 2008, James Carville wrote 40 More Years: How Democrats Will Rule the Next Generation. Both books turned out to be overly optimistic political pornography that played to the fantasy of what victorious political activists wanted to believe rather than what really happened.
The American people have not been sold on conservatism any more than they were sold on President Obama’s left-wing philosophy when he was elected. The waves of the last three elections indicate Americans are unhappy with both political parties. Voters expect a competent, responsive government that does not tread on their rights. They have not been given that.
This does not mean conservative ideas can’t be put on the table. On the contrary, the ideals of limited government and economic opportunity are essential. However, any legislation needs to be approached with the understanding that the American people have not already signed off.
2) Develop a Communications Game Plan
Democrats have traditionally sacked incumbent Republican governments when the Republicans failed to plan how to communicate their actions to the American people. For example, in 1995, President Clinton vetoed a continuing resolution to keep the government running because it required the budget be balanced within seven years. This led to a government shutdown, which to this day is referred to as “when the Republicans shut down the government.” Republicans could have done better in their public relations battle had they had a plan. Instead they let the Democrats and a hostile media define the event. They should have been on the air with ads attacking Clinton for not agreeing to balance the budget more expeditiously.
In the twenty-first century, the focus need not be on paid television advertising alone, but Republicans need to have a plan for overcoming media bias and explaining what they’re doing to the public.
3) Do the Little Things Right
Democratic icon Tip O’Neill would have told incoming freshman, “You may have been elected by accident, but you won’t be re-elected by accident.” Republicans this year (and Democrats in 2006 and 2008) won because of the party in power’s failure to perform basic tasks. If Republicans want to maintain power following 2010, they have to do these things well.
First, new freshmen need to pay particular attention to their constituent service organization. Voters contact members of congress for help with their difficulty in dealing with federal bureaucracy such as Social Security. The most important hiring that new members of Congress can make is to get competent, sensitive, and intelligent folks who can field those issues.
Secondly, members of Congress need to be out in their districts holding real town hall meetings. The biggest mistake Democrats may have made is avoiding these meetings or attempting to restrict them. This sent a message to voters that the members of Congress did not care about the people’s concerns. In the same manner, it would probably be wise for Republicans to curtail the use of telephone town halls. These allow more control over the process but are rarely covered by the press, so no one knows about them other than the people on the call.
Thirdly, voters respect a willingness talk to people, to listen to opposition, and to respond respectfully. Even if people don’t agree with a politician, they’ll respect someone who is a stand-up person more than they would someone who doesn’t seem to care about what they think.
And finally, Republicans have to hold their caucus to the highest standard of ethics. In the last Republican Congress, Mark Foley’s inappropriate contact with House pages was known well before the story was made public in September 2006. When the FBI found $90,000 in cash in the freezer of Rep. William Jefferson, then-Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) went after the FBI.
In the new Congress, all of its members, particularly Republicans, should be held to a high standard of ethics. Republicans who misbehave should be pressured to resign, not allowed to remain in the caucus to the detriment of the country. America faces too many problems to have time for such distractions.
4) Talk like Leaders, not Activists
Rep. Alan Grayson (D-FL) provides Republicans a good example of how not to serve in Congress. He was elected from a marginally Republican district, which Cook rates a +2R. In Grayson’s brief congressional career, he has been a bomb thrower, calling one female lobbyist “a whore” and comparing the tea party to the Ku Klux Klan. Such a tone is more appropriate to a Daily Kos diarist, thus Grayson’s 2010 defeat surprised no one. People want their members of Congress to be adults focused on the issues that matter to them.
Members of Congress should leave the bomb throwing to folks who don’t have to face re-election and avoid making remarks on issues irrelevant to their jobs. Senator-elect Rand Paul’s comments from May about the Civil Rights Act made for an interesting intellectual point, but inflamed the press and only served to distract from the issues in the U.S. Senate race.
If Republicans avoid over-estimating what this victory means and focus on the business of the American people, the gains of 2010 can be the beginning of a conservative resurgence.