The Magazine

Put on a Happy Face

The Republican challenge.

Nov 17, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 09 • By FRED BARNES
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Republicans have a big problem. Nope, it's not figuring out how to rebuild their party after consecutive defeats in national elections (that's easy). Nor is it finding new leaders in Congress (also easy) or latching onto fresh ideas that might improve the Republican brand (easiest of all). The problem is simpler--but also more difficult--than those. It's the tricky business of dealing with President Barack Obama.

For starters, Republicans should recognize their position in relation to Obama. For the time being anyway, he's a colossus astride the continent, the most commanding political presence since Ronald Reagan arrived in Washington. He's the star. Republicans are extras. If they attract attention, it's likely to be because they've done something the media consider outrageous or dumb.

There are five areas in which Republicans need to be as smart, cool-headed, and disciplined as Obama was during the campaign, and may continue to be as president-elect and president.

The Obama Honeymoon. He's going to have one, big time. It will probably linger into the early months of his presidency. Americans desperately want to feel good about a new president even if they didn't vote for him. This is especially true in Obama's case since he's our first African-American president.

Americans have a genuine sense of pride in this breakthrough for two reasons. Obama mentions one of them frequently. It's "only in America" that a black man, a member of a minority group, could be elected leader of the country. The other reason: It's the biggest step in overcoming America's racial past since the Civil Rights movement. I suspect a solid majority of Republican and conservative voters feel this way at the moment.

As the honeymoon drags on, Republicans may grow weary of the hero worship, but there's nothing they can do to change it. Routinely complaining about Obama's selection of a White House staff and cabinet will come off as small-minded and petty. The temptation to zing Obama should be resisted. The smarter tactic, given the inevitability of an extravagant Obama coronation, is to grin and bear it.

Republican Cooperation. For now, congressional Republicans need to emphasize their eagerness to forge bipartisan compromises with Democrats. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell has already done some of this. There's a good bit of fakery involved. McConnell and his House counterparts know perfectly well there's little chance of actually reaching agreement on small issues and no chance at all on big ones. Still, offering alternatives to Democratic legislation is wise. Republicans will look high-minded.

For sheer hypocrisy, Republican happy talk about cooperation doesn't come close to that of House speaker Nancy Pelosi. "The country must be governed from the middle," she declared last week. Democrats will operate "in a strong bipartisan way with civility in our debate and fiscal responsibility in our budgeting," she added assuringly. Later in the week, she proposed two costly "stimulus" bills with no Republican input.

Republicans can forget about Pelosi and Senate majority leader Harry Reid. They're hopelessly partisan. But there's Obama. His most popular promise, in speech after speech, has been to unify the country and begin a new era of bipartisanship in Washington. Every voter in America must be aware of this promise. Republicans ought to hold him to it. When Pelosi and Reid balk, Republicans should call on Obama to redeem his promise. They should do this relentlessly. They'll have public sentiment on their side.

Republican Patience. This is a trait rarely found in politicians, much less in Republican politicians. But it's a virtue that can make Republicans look calm and responsible. The idea is to hold their fire until Democrats unleash the liberal agenda on Congress. That means their opposition to popular liberal bills, like funding for child health care, should be low-key and never obstreperous. Democrats will bring these up early next year, and they'll attract some Republican support.

With their reduced numbers Republicans won't be able to force Obama to commit errors. But unforced errors will come soon enough. The most egregious parts of the liberal agenda are unforced errors all by themselves: card check, the Fairness Doctrine, the Freedom of Choice Act removing all limits on abortion on demand, tax hikes and spending excesses, reimposing the ban on offshore drilling for oil and gas, and much, much more. "We have to propose a radically different pathway," says Republican representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin. "We haven't done that."

Blame Game. Republicans shouldn't indulge in recriminations. This is one way to get press attention, but there's a political price. The media love it when Republicans attack Republicans--because it makes Republicans look bad. Does anyone think better of the McCain campaign now that unnamed aides are leaking nasty stories about Sarah Palin? Hardly.

Throwing around blame will only strengthen Obama's hand. He'll look like the true adult in Washington. After Hillary Clinton lost the Democratic nomination to Obama, her top advisers began attacking each other. This reinforced the idea that her loss was deserved. Republicans shouldn't follow the Clinton model.

Republican Weakness. Where is it? In the Northeast, across the upper Midwest, and in cities and upscale suburbs. To gain a majority in Congress, Republicans will have to win House and Senate seats in those places. To win the presidency, they'll have to appeal to voters in those locations.

Republicans in Washington must keep these voters--they're more moderate than conservative--in mind and avoid alienating them. Republicans don't need to jettison conservative principles. Ryan, the party's most innovative thinker, says Republicans need only apply these principles to the new political era, and moderates will be comfortable with the result.

One more thing is essential, according to Ryan. "We've got to be happy warriors," he says. "We've got to stop being the angry white guy party." Otherwise, Republicans will play right into Obama's hands.

Fred Barnes is executive editor of THE WEEKLY STANDARD.