Republican leaders in Congress have created something called the National Council for a New America (NCNA). It describes itself as "not a Republican-only forum" but one that seeks to "engage people in a discussion to meet common challenges and build a stronger country through common-sense ideas." The expectation--mine, anyway--is those ideas will differ from President Obama's in a way that makes Republicans look fairminded and reasonable. The council's first event at a pizza parlor in Arlington, Virginia, did just that. Mitt Romney and Jeb Bush showed up, media coverage was heavy, and the session was deemed a success.
Improving the party's image is a worthy cause, but it isn't what Republicans ought to be emphasizing right now. They have a more important mission: to be the party of no. And not just a party that bucks Obama and Democrats on easy issues like releasing Gitmo terrorists in this country, but one committed to aggressive, attention-grabbing opposition to the entire Obama agenda.
Many Republicans recoil from being combative adversaries of a popular president. They shouldn't. Opposing Obama across-the-board on his sweeping domestic initiatives makes sense on substance and politics. His policies--on spending, taxes, health care, energy, intervention in the economy, etc.--would change the country in ways most Americans don't believe in. That's the substance. And a year or 18 months from now, after those policies have been picked apart and exposed and possibly defeated, the political momentum is likely to have shifted away from Obama and Democrats.
This scenario has occurred time and again. Why do you think Democrats won the House and Senate in 2006 and bolstered their majorities in 2008? It wasn't because they were more thoughtful, offered compelling alternatives, or had improved their brand. They won because they opposed unpopular policies of President Bush and exploited Republican scandals in Congress. They were highly partisan and not very nice about it.
If Republicans scan their history, they'll discover unbridled opposition to bad Democratic policies pays off. Those two factors, unattractive policies plus strong opposition, were responsible for the Republican landslides in 1938, 1946, 1966, 1980, and 1994. A similar blowout may be beyond the reach of Republicans in 2010, but stranger things have happened in electoral politics. They'll lose nothing by trying.
Let's look at the five landslides. Republicans were crushed in three straight elections before rebounding in 1938. How come? FDR uncorked his court-packing plan, launched a jihad against disloyal Democrats, and was fairly blamed for a new economic downturn (known as "the depression within the depression"). Republicans piled on and won seven Senate and 81 House seats.
In 1946, the public was fed up with wartime regulations that many Democrats were seeking to retain. Republicans asked, "Had enough?" Voters had.
In 1966, voters reacted adversely to the vast Great Society programs enacted after the Democratic triumph in 1964. Republicans, written off as dead, gained 47 House and four Senate seats, eight governorships, and won the presidency two years later.
Ronald Reagan would, in all likelihood, have defeated President Carter in 1980 on his own merit. But public revulsion at Carter's weak foreign policy and disastrous economic record (double-digit inflation and interest rates) produced a landslide that delivered Republicans the Senate as well. Tough Republican critiques of Carterism had played an indispensable role.
Republicans still pride themselves on the Contract with America--dealing with process issues like a balanced budget amendment and term limits--adopted in the 1994 campaign. It may have helped. But the main reason for the Republican capture of the House and Senate was the agenda of President Clinton: health care, crime, guns, taxes, and a lot more. Republicans dissected Clinton's policies skillfully and relentlessly, particularly turning his health care plan, initially quite popular, into an albatross.
Obama may not be as vulnerable as Clinton was, but his policies are. There's no reason for Republicans to hold back. It's evident now that Obama and the congressional Democrats have no interest in compromise. Their intent is to push far-reaching liberal policies through Congress quickly and with minimal debate. Obama's health care scheme would bring the country one step from a single-payer system. His plan to limit carbon emissions would give the federal government unprecedented power over the economy while emasculating the investors, entrepreneurs, and practically everyone else in the business community.
The Republicans have fertile ground to plow. The public is already dubious of a government-run health insurance plan, the core of Obama-Care. And there's plenty more for Republicans to focus on, including the threat of a government panel that decides which medical practices are covered and which are ostracized. Defeating ObamaCare, given Democratic majorities on Capitol Hill, may be difficult but it's not an impossibility. If Republicans lead the charge, health care providers and consumers are likely to join the active opposition. Otherwise, they'll remain passive.
Obama says his policy to restrict greenhouse gases, known as cap and trade, is "market-based." It isn't. The cap on emissions would be imposed by a government panel. Polls show the majority of Americans disapprove of this. Worse for Obama, Frank Newport, the Gallup boss, says most Americans don't believe global warming poses a serious danger. So why choke off economic growth?
Then there are the unforced errors of the Obama administration to take advantage of. The president's decision to close Gitmo has backfired badly, leaving him with terrorists on his hands and nowhere to put them. The takeover of GM and Chrysler has raised concerns, even in Europe, over the competence and judgment of the Obama team. The American public is lopsidedly against further bailouts of the Big 2.
Republican efforts to escape being tagged the party of no are understandable. The label gives Democrats and the media echo chamber a talking point. Should the NCNA come up with new ideas that spruce up the party's image, that's helpful. The criticism of the council by social conservatives, by the way, is downright counter-productive. Their attacks merely delight Democrats and the press.
But no matter how restrained and sensible Republicans sound or how many useful ideas they develop, they're probably stuck with the party of no label. They have more to gain by actually accepting the role and taking on Obama vigorously. If they come to be dubbed the party of no, no, no, a thousand times no, all the better. It will mean they're succeeding.
Fred Barnes is executive editor of THE WEEKLY STANDARD.