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Can the GOP Find a Path Forward?

There are, of course, some in the party who believe that any tax increases will destroy the economy and are a sellout, but much larger cuts in spending will have only a positive impact on the economy. One can not argue with purists. It seems to me that given the almost complete lack of leverage held by the GOP in the lame-duck negotiating session, Senator McConnell got a pretty good deal -- certainly better than the one the president campaigned for, which included lower levels for the new top rates to kick in, ordinary income treatment of dividends, and lower levels of estate tax exemption and higher rates for estate taxes.

House Speaker Boehner also skillfully  managed to set the sequestration deadline ahead of the date when the debt-ceiling extension expires. As was proven in 2011 and 2012, the perception of the Republicans playing games with the debt ceiling, and risking the commitment to upholding the full faith and credit of the United States, was disastrous politically. But spending cuts gather far more political support and are a core Republican principle. If the GOP can hold the line on the defense cuts in sequestration, as much as many in the party do not like them, Boehner will have gained leverage with the Democrats due to the  president’s  passionate attachment to discretionary spending. The threat of across-the-board sequestration cuts to discretionary programs could force the Democrats to offer up some modest entitlement spending cuts as a replacement, maybe even more than one-to-one for the discretionary program cuts restored.

The GOP has also shown some moxie in the initial negotiations over immigration reform. While the ideas of amnesty and a path to citizenship are repellent to many on the conservative side, these steps already occurred with immigration reform under President Reagan. The four GOP senators who have been participating in the immigration negotiations have linked the ability to even apply for a green card to a trigger based on improved border security, as well as a "last in line" concept of placing the undocumented  behind all those already in the queue for legal immigration.

As no bill has been written but only broad principles outlined, the GOP in both the Senate and House can certainly work to make the bill a better one, and limit the president’s role to his normal hectoring of the Republicans. If Chuck Schumer and Robert Menendez are working with John McCain and Marco Rubio, the president’s  hectoring of Republicans will not accomplish much in terms of securing passage of any bill. Rubio has shown the ability to  speak directly to the American people on this subject despite the media filter most GOP members of Congress face when trying to discuss policy or defend their approach.

Hopefully, the GOP has learned that most voters regard compromise as a good thing politically, and the split in government control gives the GOP a seat at the table but not control over the process. This is not like the six-month period in 2009 when Obamacare was rammed through with 60 Democratic Senate votes.  The GOP's success in the 2010 elections was in large part a reaction to that unpopular bill and the unseemly process by which it was passed. The bill is no more popular today, and there is a very good chance that the rollout of the exchanges in 2014 will be a political nightmare for the administration. At that point, the GOP needs to do more than say “I told you so"; it needs to offer substantive alternatives that address the program’s many defects.

Similarly, the GOP needs to advance a growth agenda. It was remarkable that the president never mentioned the issue in his inaugural address. Dividing up the pie is all that matters to him.  The GOP has to make economic growth a factor to all its policy initiatives -- in immigration, tax reform, and health care reform.  Being part of the sausage-making enterprise in Congress is better than being on the sidelines. Getting to yes at times is also better than being seen as the party of no.

The GOP should also insist that its new faces -- Rubio, Cruz, Scott, Jindal, Haley, Susana Martinez -- get their time on the Sunday talk shows, not just the old guard. The media are happy to have the GOP’s s old men show up to make the case for the party.  In the personality-driven culture we live in, the party’s image will change faster if its spokespeople defy the image the Democrats and the media have tried to create for them.