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How to Win in 2014

Stop Obama, promote the farm team.

Mar 4, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 24 • By JAY COST
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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.

How a Republican can Win

Gary Locke

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.

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