Do the Republicans Have a Plan?
Republican efforts to craft a policy and political agenda to carry the party into the midterm elections have stumbled repeatedly as GOP leaders face widespread disaffection and disagreement within the ranks. Anxiety over President Bush’s Iraq policy, internal clashes over such divisive issues as immigration, and rising complaints that the party has abandoned conservative principles on spending restraint have all hobbled the effort to devise an election-year message, said several lawmakers involved in the effort. While it is a Republican refrain that Democrats criticize Bush but have no positive vision, for now the governing party also has no national platform around which lawmakers are prepared to rally.
The struggles reflect philosophical differences among competing factions within the party, but they also underscore the political consequences of holding power. Republicans insist they remain united around core principles of smaller government, lower taxes and a strong national defense, but can no longer agree on how to implement that philosophy and are squabbling over their delivery on those commitments.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) said the root of the problem is a failure of Washington Republicans to stick to principles, saying that his party risks losing power because it has done “a pretty poor job” of executing its small-government philosophy. “Republicans just need to take stock, go back and realize that the American people elected them because of their principles, and when you do not adhere to those principles, the American people are just as likely to turn you out and choose someone else.” Lately, the drift Perry described has been on glaring display almost daily. A week ago, Republican speakers at a GOP gathering in Memphis complained about the breakdown in fiscal discipline. A few days later, lawmakers in Washington raised the federal debt ceiling by an additional $781 billion and voted to authorize more than $100 billion in new spending.
Because of these realities, Republicans have adopted a midterm strategy designed to avoid making the election a national referendum on their performance or one that focuses on their policy divisions. Their goal is to concentrate less on the kind of positive message they have challenged the Democrats to produce and more on framing a choice that says, however unhappy voters may be right now with the Republicans’ leadership, things would be worse if Democrats were in charge.
So, essentially, we have a standoff. The Democrats argue that things are bad and would be better if they were in charge and the Republicans argue that, while things may be bad, they would be even worse if the Democrats were in charge. Neither of these, it’s fair to say, is a bold vision for the future.
The GOP is in a predictable position. They have had elective control of both Houses of Congress since 1995 (with a brief loss of power in the Senate after a post-election party switch by Jim Jeffords) and have a second term president. Parties in power tend not to have a lot of new ideas beyond “stay the course.” They have either done, failed at, or abandoned the policies that carried them to power.
The Democrats’ failure to assemble a unified message is more of a head scratcher. Certainly, they have a major opening with the current tide of public dissatisfaction with the status quo. It might even be enough on its own to lead to a power shift in November. But what then? The purpose of winning elections is not merely victory but the opportunity to enact one’s policy preferences. It would be helpful to know what those are ahead of time.