Two weeks after taking over Congress in the new year, congressional Republicans adjourned to Hershey, Pennsylvania, for a bicameral retreat to plan the next two years. The meeting came as the GOP enjoys its highest marks in years from an electorate generally skeptical of politics and cynical about Washington.
A Washington Post/ABC News poll taken shortly before the new Congress was sworn in found the public evenly divided on Republicans. Forty-seven percent see the GOP favorably; the same percentage see the party unfavorably. These may not seem like numbers to celebrate. But in the same poll taken in October, shortly before the midterm elections, just 33 percent had a favorable view of Republicans and 56 had an unfavorable view.
Republicans, of course, haven’t done anything substantive to earn the higher marks. And for some in Congress, there’s a lesson in that: Don’t do anything substantive. It might jeopardize this new standing.
In an interview with the Washington Post shortly before becoming Senate majority leader, Mitch McCon-nell said his objective was to prevent his party from appearing “scary” to voters ahead of the 2016 presidential election. “I think that’s the single best thing we can do, is to not mess up the playing field, if you will, for whoever the nominee ultimately is.”
It’s an understandable impulse. It’s also the wrong one.
The single best thing congressional Republicans can do is make clear to voters that their party will take the country in a very different direction from that of President Obama. In its most recent poll on the subject, taken in December, Gallup found that 76 percent of Americans were dissatisfied with the direction of the country; just 23 percent were satisfied. Gallup has asked that question 85 times since Obama was first elected. In 73 of those 85 surveys, more than 70 percent of respondents have told pollsters they were dissatisfied with the direction of the country.
We have little doubt that what McConnell had in mind when he said his goal was “to not mess up” was something like avoiding a repeat of the 2013 government shutdown. Fine. But it would also be nice to see hints of a bolder agenda from Republicans in the first two weeks of their control of Congress. Instead, we’ve seen every indication that Republicans will use their majorities to do. . . very little.
There may never be a better political environment for serious tax reform. Barack Obama has repeatedly raised taxes during his six years in office. The Internal Revenue Service has been plagued by scandal after revelations that top IRS officials were targeting political opponents of the president for additional scrutiny. And the IRS is the chief enforcement agency for Obamacare, the president’s deeply unpopular signature domestic policy item. Many of the punitive tax and penalty provisions of Obamacare kick in this year, including the employer mandate, and even defenders of the law are predicting widespread confusion over the next several months.
Given all this, voters might have expected congressional Republicans to prioritize comprehensive tax reform, for businesses and individuals. They might have anticipated that Republicans had legislation teed up and ready for a vote immediately after taking control of both chambers.
Instead, to the extent voters have heard much about Republicans and taxes in the first couple weeks of this new Congress, they’ve heard this: Republicans want to work with President Obama to reform taxes for corporations; some Republicans favor repealing the medical device tax that helps fund Obamacare; and some Republicans have gone to great lengths to make clear that a gas tax hike remains on the table.
If you’re a blue-collar worker in, say, Iowa or Colorado who voted for a Republican last fall hoping for change, there’s not a lot there to excite you.
It’s not time to panic. A gas tax hike will not get through this Congress. Republicans are emphasizing corporate tax reform and targeted Obamacare tax repeal not because they’re top priorities but because they’re possible. And with Paul Ryan the new chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, there’s every reason to hope congressional Republicans will settle on a tax reform package that is aggressive.
President Obama won’t sign such tax reform legislation, of course. But this is a fight Republicans win simply by having it. So we say: Go big, go bold! On tax reform, on an Obamacare alternative, and on everything else, too. Give us substance, sharpen the contrast, highlight the differences.
Playing defense only works when you’ve got a big lead. And playing not to lose rarely leads to a win.