If all goes well for Republicans in the midterm elections, they’ll capture the House and maybe the Senate, having revealed few specifics of what they might do in the next Congress. This makes sense. It’s the Chris Christie strategy.
Christie was elected governor of New Jersey last year after giving voters no more than a glimpse of his plans for the state. The reason was simple. Had he laid out his sweeping agenda of spending and tax cuts, he’d have given Democrats an inviting target. They surely would have tried to scare voters away from Christie, and it might have worked. Instead he concentrated on Democratic governor Jon Corzine as the main issue—and won.
For Republicans this year, the Christie strategy calls for making President Obama, Democrats, and their policies (jobs, spending, deficit, debt, Obamacare) the issue, while going light on the particulars of their own hopes and plans. An example is the Pledge to America issued by House Republicans. It’s more vague than specific, and properly so. It fits the strategy.
But there’s a rub. While the strategy is clear, there are doubts about whether Republicans, once elected, will act. Will they push vigorously for cutting spending, trimming the size of government, impeding steps to implement Obamacare, blocking any tax hikes, and generally thwarting Obama and Democrats? Will they be bold?
I’m inclined to think they will, at least in the House. Not bold like Christie in New Jersey, where the governor’s office is the strongest in the nation. But bold in ways that at least go beyond opposition to Obamacare and set the stage for Republicans to gain full control of the White House and Congress in the 2012 election.
One of the biggest spurs to moving aggressively in 2011 is likely to be the newly elected class of Republican House members. There may be 60 or 70 or more of them, most elected in seats previously held by Democrats. They will make up a quarter, maybe 30 percent, of the Republican conference. They won’t be patient backbenchers. They will want to take momentous action.
The Republican freshmen (and women) are overwhelmingly admirers of Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the author of “A Road Map for America’s Future,” the far-reaching blueprint for smaller government and freer, less regulated markets. Most are wary of endorsing every item in Ryan’s plan. But they share his vision of an America that turns sharply away from the statist Obama model of big government and puts the country on a sound fiscal footing.
“They’re coming out of the woodwork,” Ryan says. He has campaigned for many of them. “Limited government and free enterprise people are coming [to Congress],” Ryan says. “It’s fantastic.”
Ryan himself will be enormously influential if Republicans take the House. As chairman of the budget committee, he’ll oversee the writing of the House version of the federal budget. It’s bound to reflect some of the ideas in the Road Map, reduced spending in particular, but not the reform of Social Security that Democrats allege is on the Republican agenda for 2011. It also has to be a consensus budget, approved by the vast majority of House Republicans and thus not radical.
Another force for boldness is John Boehner, the likely speaker in a Republican House. True, this is not Boehner’s reputation. But he suffered through two painful episodes of Republican control of the House—the Newt Gingrich era in the mid-1990s and the Tom DeLay era that ended abruptly when Republicans lost the House in 2006. Boehner doesn’t want to preside over another Republican resurgence that fizzles. “He understands what’s at stake in America right now,” a House Republican says.
Boehner has vowed to do “everything” to stop Obamacare from being implemented. On that subject, he’s been quite public. “When I say we’re going to do everything to make sure this law does not go into effect, I mean everything,” he told the American Enterprise Institute last week. “Is that clear?” It includes blocking funds for “up to 22,000” federal workers assigned to lay the groundwork for the health care program, Boehner said.
He is also ready to unleash Ryan and the Republican most likely to become the scourge of the Obama White House, Darrell Issa of California. “[Boehner’s] never done one thing to hold me back,” says Ryan. On the contrary, Boehner has spoken favorably about the Road Map.
Issa will be chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee if Republicans take control. Even as the ranking Republican on the committee, Issa sought to investigate the White House’s offer to Joe Sestak to drop out of the Senate primary in Pennsylvania. (Sestak refused, and defeated Senator Arlen Specter.)
As chairman, Issa has promised to double the size of the committee staff and investigate the Obama administration and especially the White House. Boehner declared last week that Issa has his full backing to use subpoenas as part of his investigations. “Congress has an appropriate role under the Constitution to provide oversight of the executive branch, and I would pledge that it’s going to happen,” Boehner said.
He was putting it mildly. Issa is a tough-minded critic of the Obama administration. With subpoena power, he’ll be able to gather information that may be embarrassing to the administration, or worse.
The Christie strategy has a twist to it. Republicans don’t want to trot out everything they’d like to do next year—specific cuts in programs, for instance—because that might fuel Democratic attacks. But they don’t want to overpromise either. With Obama in the White House, their power will be limited by divided government. “Why would we want to overpromise when we know we can’t deliver things?” Ryan says.
Divided government is a legitimate excuse for not accomplishing much. The public, however, expects the election of Republicans to make a difference. So, difficult or not, Republicans had better produce more than they’ve talked about so far. Just like Chris Christie.
Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.