When do those bumper stickers come out? You know, the ones which say, “Don’t blame me — I voted for the other guy.” There does seem to be an awful lot of angst over the sub-performance of the White House midway through the First Hundred Days. And those presidential poll numbers are certainly floating downward.
Jake Tapper asks if Barack Obama is doing too much. Howard Fineman complains that “the American establishment is taking his measure and, with surprising swiftness, they are finding him lacking.” And Camille Paglia unloads on everything from Barack Obama’s incompetent staff to the petty attack on Rush Limbaugh. Even Tom Friedman has taken to pleading with the president to focus on the plunging markets and financial recovery efforts. Then there are the conservatives who have become apoplectic and, frankly, entirely reengaged by the fear of a fundamental shift away from the free market system in America.
The swiftness of the criticism seems remarkable given the reverence which the media displayed toward Obama and the presidential transition which most commentators regarded as unusually smooth. But all honeymoons must end, and it seems Obama’s is ending more abruptly than most. Warren Buffet spoke for many when he said he senses the economy “has fallen off a cliff.” The same might soon be said for the confidence in the president.
The reasons are many for Obama’s increasingly hostile reviews — the cratering economy, the embarrassing nominees and non-vetting, the defections from Democratic ranks on Obama’s spending plans, and the growing unease from center-right pundits who convinced themselves and others that Obama was really a moderate.
So can Republicans now sit back and relax, safe in the knowledge that Obama is not the political colossus he was once thought to be? That would be foolhardy. But the flak which the president is getting from the punditocracy and the resistance which he is encountering from Congress suggest that Republicans may not be in the political wilderness for as long as they once feared.
In order to hasten their return, Republicans would be wise to do five things.
First, don’t get distracted. The Rush Limbaugh baiting by the White House seems to have largely backfired and the Republicans should let it die. David Frum decided to engage in race-baiting against Rush Limbaugh? Ignore it, as one would any stunt designed to gin up audiences and heighten the protagonist’s profile. The favorite game of the MSM is starting or encouraging food fights on the Right (or better yet, getting attention-starved conservative pundits to do the dirty work for them). But it benefits the Republicans not at all to spend time castigating one another when there are more important matters at hand.
Second, there are times when it is important to be the “no party” — or the “no bad ideas” party. It is not required that the Republicans come up with an alternative cap-and-trade plan, for example. It is mind-numbingly dumb to enact a massive system of energy regulation and taxation in a recession. “No” is quite sufficient. Some ideas are so bad they aren’t amenable to compromise. Limiting charitable and home mortgage deductions comes to mind.
Third, despite the procedural barriers thrown up by the Reid-Pelosi machine which severely limit legislative amendments, there are opportunities to offer Republican alternatives — whether on the stimulus (as House Minority Whip Eric Cantor did when he handed the president a list of items), on the budget, or, more generally, outside of Congress, on health care and government reform as Rep. Paul Ryan has done. The purpose is not to get these enacted, since that is virtually impossible. Rather, it is for Republicans to be there, and be ready, as the president’s plans one by one prove unpassable or unworkable. It is from these alternative ideas (and the many from around the country) that a 2010 platform can be constructed.
Fourth, follow the money and follow the crooks. Democrats won back the House in 2006 largely on two issues — an incompetently managed war and corruption. In 2012, the issues most likely will be an incompetently managed economy and corruption. And the list of corruption suspects gets longer and longer — from Jack Murtha and James Moran to Charlie Rangel and Chris Dodd. The Republicans should, whenever possible, make other House and Senate Democrats cast recorded votes on ethics issues and force Democrats to defend their ethically-challenged colleagues. The message: this is not an individual problem of corruption, but a systemic one in which Democratic members and leaders tolerate widespread corruption within the party.
Fifth, Republicans have an opportunity to reconnect with Americans while Obama is out trying to remodel America. He doesn’t much care about the stock market. Republicans should — because most voters have 401(k)s, stocks, and college savings accounts. Obama is pushing for cap-and-trade, which amounts to a $1,300 yearly tax on all Americans. Republicans should revive their plans for domestic energy development, which will create jobs, lower energy prices, and lessen our dependence on foreign oil. In short, the Democratic leadership seems to be clueless about bread-and-butter concerns of average voters. And Republicans should make a very big deal about it.
None of this means that Obama’s presidency has “failed” or that a Republican revival is imminent. Obama could very well veer back toward the center or find competent help at Treasury. He could put aside some of his more unpopular agenda items (card check and cap-and-trade come to mind). But he remains, at least for now, supremely confident and more than willing to push ahead with an agenda that is, in large measure, economically unwise and politically unsustainable.
Meanwhile, Republicans have their work cut out. Being in the minority means sowing seeds for the future. And the future — the next round of elections — will be here before you know it.