Nearly four months after the election, most everybody seems to agree that something is amiss with the GOP. This consensus has provoked a stream of free advice for how Republicans can get back on their feet. Some of it is constructive and helpful. For instance, commentators like Jim Pethokoukis of the American Enterprise Institute, Peter Wehner of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, and Michael Gerson of the Washington Post have persuasively argued in various ways about why and how the Republican party needs to update its policy offerings. But much of the “advice” amounts to a victory lap by liberal Democrats and their friends in the media, many of whom seem to think that a successful Republican party would be one that closely resembles the Democrats.
Helpful political advice should first of all be practical, taking into account what can and cannot be done. What, for instance, can the Republican party accomplish between now and the next election? To do that, we should first take a political inventory, to see where the GOP stands. On the plus side of the ledger, we have the party’s strength in the states. Republicans control 30 governorships, including in key swing states like Florida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. What’s more, the GOP holds a majority of state legislative seats, roughly 52 percent nationwide. All told, Republicans have unified control of 25 states, with 53 percent of the nation’s population. Compare that with the Democrats, who control 13 states with 30 percent of the American public.
Republicans also control the House of Representatives and retain enough seats to filibuster in the Senate. Not only that, but the 234 House Republicans still constitute a larger caucus than at any point during the Republican “revolution” of the mid-1990s. While this number is down from 2010, the last two cycles have produced the strongest GOP House majority since the Great Depression.
Finally, the Republican coalition is reasonably united. Naturally, there are fissures—notably, the divide between the so-called establishment wing of the party and the Tea Party “opposition.” Nevertheless, historical perspective is appropriate here. While the media like to play up today’s divisions, the party remains generally united around a set of policy goals—tax reform and sensible deregulation to jump-start the economy, entitlement reform to solve the debt crisis, the expansion of domestic energy production, and so on. One could not say the same of the Republicans after Franklin Roosevelt’s reelection in 1936 or Lyndon Johnson’s in 1964.
What about the liabilities the party faces? Most obviously, the GOP failed to win the top prize in 2012. A lot of the talk about the divided nature of today’s GOP is an artifact of its failure to win the White House. The American political system—with its separation across three branches of the national government, and then across states and localities—disperses power far and wide, intentionally creating a problem of collective action. One of the biggest jobs of the modern president is to guide the vast, diverse machinery of the government to realize the public good.
Because political parties seek to control this vast apparatus, they ultimately mimic its design. This means that American parties are also disorganized and clunky. When a party does not control the White House, it is largely incapable of achieving collective goals because no one person or group is “in charge.” Today, no single Republican—not House speaker John Boehner, not Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, not party chairman Reince Preibus, or anyone else—has the power to induce the various factions within the party to cooperate. And, so long as the Republican party does not control the White House, nobody will. This means that there are limits to the kinds of reform the Republican party can undertake. This is not a problem unique to the 2013 GOP, but one that has saddled all minority parties in the modern era.
Another liability is President Barack Obama himself. He is not a good partner for constructive governance, even in areas where there might be agreement. The current battle over sequestration is a perfect illustration of the challenge Republicans face in dealing with Obama. The impasse boils down to the president’s demand for higher taxes to deal with the $1.2 trillion in deficit reduction that sequestration requires. However, when the deal was inked back in the summer of 2011, the two sides were both looking for $1.2 trillion in discretionary spending cuts. In other words, President Obama changed his bargaining demands.
This has become a pattern with the president. During the debt ceiling battle in 2011, he came back to Boehner at the 11th hour with a request (or demand) for 50 percent more in new tax revenue. He vacillated on whether he wanted Republican input on the 2009 stimulus, at first encouraging the GOP to come to him with ideas, then icily shutting them down when they did so. He flip-flopped after Scott Brown won the Massachusetts Senate seat, temporarily scuttling Obamacare. At first, he appeared solicitous of Republican suggestions, going so far as to hold a bipartisan summit at Blair House. Then he changed his mind, forcing the massive new health care entitlement through the Congress on a party-line vote. It is very difficult to negotiate with somebody who plays these games. How can he be trusted? At any moment, he could scuttle a deal, then hold a press conference to blame Republicans.
This points to the third liability the Republicans face—the House of Representatives. While it is fortunate that the GOP controls it because it can veto the liberal agenda, it is a perfect straw man for this president. And indeed, President Obama has used the bully pulpit masterfully, convincing the public that congressional Republicans are to blame for the breakdown in Washington governance. While insider accounts—such as Bob Woodward’s The Price of Politics—paint a vastly different picture, those points are lost on the public, which is predisposed to blame Congress.
With this political inventory in hand, what practical advice can we give the Republican party? What can it actually do to improve its position between now and the 2016 presidential election?
The first suggestion is also the easiest: Stop the Obama agenda. House conservatives unfortunately are in no position to enact a conservative alternative. Nor, for that matter, can they even force President Obama to reject it; Senate Democrats will reliably table anything that makes Obama look bad well before it gets to his desk. However, they can stop the advance of the left. This is not nothing, considering the ambitions of the president. What’s more, the implementation of his centerpiece program, Obamacare, has been problematic, to say the least, and House Republicans are in prime position to keep Democrats from “fixing” the law through more taxes, regulations, and governmental control.
Beyond that, matters become much more complicated. Hindsight is 20/20, and it appears clear in retrospect that congressional Republicans made a mistake in trying to force President Obama to deal responsibly with the country’s fiscal problems. He is not interested in leading (or following) on this issue. Worse, he has used the megaphone of the presidency to cast Republicans as the irresponsible party.
This is probably the GOP’s number one danger moving forward. It cannot allow President Obama to create the impression that Republicans are too radical or dangerous to govern. Without sacrificing its veto power over the liberal agenda, the best approach for the GOP is a strategic withdrawal from the battlefield. If there is no forcing this president to be responsible, and if the GOP is hopelessly outgunned in the PR war by the partnership of the White House and a pliant press corps, then the only sensible move is to demur. Republicans should pass whatever symbolic pieces of legislation are necessary to stake out the GOP’s position, but when it comes down to a choice between some kind of crisis (be it a government shutdown, the “fiscal cliff,” or whatever) and letting Obama have his way, Republicans should choose the latter.
Nancy Pelosi’s tenure as speaker in 2007 and 2008 is actually a good model for Republicans. The Democrats won in 2006 on a wave of antiwar sentiment, but so long as George W. Bush held the veto pen, there was relatively little they could do. Sure, congressional Democrats could have cut off war funding, but that would have been a PR disaster. So Pelosi and her leadership team passed symbolic bills to end the war, then acceded to President Bush’s requests for funding.
While avoiding unproductive confrontations in Washington, Republicans should turn their attention to the states as the main arena for conservative reforms. Which state leaders have been successful? Why have they succeeded? How can these lessons be translated to the national stage? Republicans should be optimistic about their future because, with so many leaders on the state level, it is possible for the GOP to get answers to these questions between now and 2016. Put another way, the GOP is like a baseball team that just missed the playoffs, but is fortunate to have an excellent system of farm clubs.
But making the most of that opportunity is easier said than done. Unfortunately over the last three years, we have seen the GOP shoot itself in the foot many times over; Republican electorates have nominated candidates for office who have underperformed, needlessly alienating voters who otherwise might be amenable to the GOP program. This has been most pronounced in the Senate; over the last two cycles, Republicans have lost as many as seven Senate seats because of weak, ineffectual candidates who could not communicate persuasively.
Insofar as the party is capable of collective action, its efforts should focus on finding quality candidates, both for 2014 and 2016. A lot of this simply comes down to convincing the top tier of would-be Republican officeholders that the country’s problems are too dire for them to refuse the call to service. The rest of the task will be about making sure that these top challengers make the most persuasive case to Republican primary electorates. If there is one thing Republicans have failed to do in the Age of Obama, it is putting its best foot forward.
All told, it is mightily frustrating that the GOP did not capture a national majority in the 2012 election, especially considering it seemed up until the last minute that victory was possible. But, disappointment aside, the 2013 Republican party is relatively well positioned, considering it just lost the presidency. It has a lot of tools in its toolbox, and while there are certainly problems that must be dealt with, they are not of the existential variety. If Republicans can stop the further advance of Obama’s liberal agenda while deflecting his demagogic attacks, that should provide the cover for the Republicans’ farm team in the states to get ready for the battles of 2014 and beyond.
Jay Cost is a staff writer at The Weekly Standard.