The PJ Tatler

Republicans Know What They're Against. But What Are They For?

Let’s face it. It’s tough being in the minority. Any ideas they have for improving the lives of Americans, or improving the performance of government, or improving the economy are ignored by the majority. “I won,” President Obama told Republicans a few days after he took office as they sought to have some input into the developing stimulus package.

And that’s the way it’s been since then. During the debate over Obamacare, the president and Democrats continuously told the lie that his plan had to be passed because the Republicans had no ideas of their own. Not only were there a dozen substitute health insurance reform bills offered by various Republicans, there was the only real attempt at bipartisan reform in the Wyden-Bennett Act. From there, GOP complaints about elements in the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill were brushed aside as were Republican ideas on taxes, the budget, and the deficit.

In short, any attempt at implementing Republican ideas has been thoroughly and completely scuttled by the Democrats. They might have argued that these are bad ideas, or that we disagree with these ideas, but that wasn’t the way it went. Instead, Democrats substituted childish name-calling and bomb-throwing, accusing Republicans of being “terrorists, or “extremists,” or just plain evil. Rarely, if ever, was there a debate on the merits of GOP proposals. In fact, Democrats refused to debate anything at all.

Given these circumstances, is it a surprise that Republicans find themselves opposing just about everything President Obama and the Democrats put forward? You can hardly expect Republicans to abandon their principles and vote for noxious legislation like Obamacare, financial regulatory reform, and immigration reform. The guts of all those bills are antithetical to conservatives, and the GOP could no more support those bills than liberals could have supported a totally free market approach to health insurance reform.

But lost in the genuine and principled — for the most part — opposition to President Obama’s policies is the notion that by proving to the voter what they are against, what they are for gets lost in the shuffle.

Tied up in the policy of the matter are the political calculations that go into winning an election. Karen Tumulty at the Washington Post summarizes the GOP’s dilemma:

A quiet argument is boiling within the party over whether it should offer voters an agenda that shows what Republicans would accomplish if they are returned to power or whether it should simply ride an anti-Democratic tide into the November election.

Some, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), worry that proposing a set of detailed policy alternatives is taking an unnecessary risk when so much else is going the right way for Republicans. Putting forward an agenda can inflame differences within the party and give opponents targets to shoot.

That in part was what sank Cantor, who was faulted by the tea party as too accommodating.

The Virginia Republican drew especially intense fire for advocating a GOP version of the Dream Act, which would enable some illegal immigrants who entered the country as children to qualify for in-state college tuition rates.

Standing in opposition may be a good electoral strategy at a moment when the president and his party are politically weak, and when most of the key battles on the political map are being fought in conservative territory.

There also is the reality that President Obama will remain in the White House for the next two years, using his veto power to make sure that Republicans cannot keep whatever promises they make.

But a no-on-everything stance provides little to begin laying a premise for the presidential election of 2016.

Republicans may be able to get away with running solely against the ACA, President Obama, and the Democrats in 2014, with some lip service given to ideas to boost the economy and job growth. But for 2016, party idea people better get moving and come up with an agenda that the American people can support. Saying the GOP will repeal Obamacare may please most Republicans but will not be enough for too many others. A well thought out and attractive series of policy proposals must be developed that the party can unite behind and that the party nominee can run on.

This is easier said than done. And it starts with trying to coalesce behind some popular issues for 2014 that most Republicans support:

Democrats “try to push a narrative that Republicans are against everything. That’s not true. Republicans are for a lot of things, like more jobs,” said Stuart Stevens, a Republican consultant who is advising embattled Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), who is fighting for reelection in a runoff against tea party challenger Chris McDaniel.

Those who would like to see that party unite behind at least a handful of agenda items say those could include, at a minimum, support for the Keystone XL pipeline and more tax breaks for small businesses.

But they acknowledge that coalescing around other issues may be impossible. For instance, it is an article of faith among tea party members that the Affordable Care Act should be repealed, but that is likely impossible to achieve while Obama remains in the White House.

The natural inclination of conservatives is to distrust government and view with a jaundiced eye any effort to expand its powers. There is nothing wrong with this, and indeed, it is necessary and proper in the Age of Obama. But the nation is facing systemic problems that cry out for conservative solutions, and coming up empty in the idea department when so many Americans are hurting does not endear the GOP to the voter.

It is difficult to develop a winning agenda that all can unite behind in a party that prides itself on striving to shrink the government rather than grow it. It is equally hard to play the role of Scrooge to the Democrats’ Santa Claus. People like free stuff — or, at least, stuff that someone else pays for. This may be the defining challenge for conservatism in an age when the Democrats are promising the moon and the stars to voters and think they can get it simply by raising taxes on a few rich people.

Behind Reagan’s revolution and Gingrich’s Contract with America there were solid, if not spectacular, ideas. Simple, popular notions of what government can and can’t do were eventually accepted by the majority of voters because the message came from a remarkably united party. I don’t know if the GOP will ever be that united again. But they should be able to develop policy proposals that the voter can agree with and get behind.