Jack Kemp, the Republican congressman from Buffalo, met with Ronald Reagan at the Airport Marriott in Los Angeles in early January 1980. Kemp, an enthusiastic supporter of supply-side economics, had authored the Kemp-Roth tax cut to reduce income tax rates by 30 percent across the board. He was eager to persuade Reagan, who had expressed sympathy for the tax proposal in radio broadcasts.
Kemp succeeded, and their alliance proved to be enormously fruitful. Reagan adopted the Kemp tax cut and economic growth as the centerpieces of his presidential bid. It led, after he won the nomination, to a united campaign with congressional Republicans—and to enactment of a 23 percent tax cut once Reagan was elected.
Now Republicans would like to revive party unity and repeat the Reagan-Kemp success story. House speaker John Boehner and Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell are planning to confer with the Republican nominee, once one emerges. Their aim: agreement on a joint agenda.
McConnell has specific ideas about what the presidential candidate and Republicans in both houses of Congress should promote. “Obamacare should be the number one issue in the campaign,” he says. “I think it’s the gift that keeps on giving.”
Next are the deficit and national debt. These, in turn, would make entitlement and tax reform important issues against Obama. “We’re not interested in small ball,” McConnell says.
And there’s another Republican initiative on Capitol Hill aimed at thwarting President Obama and Democrats. Republicans plan to keep up a steady stream of bills and proposals, mostly coming from the House, to foil the charge that Obama’s policies have been undercut by a “do-nothing Congress”—that is, a Republican Congress.
“There isn’t a do-nothing Con-gress,” a Republican consultant says. “There’s a do-nothing Senate.” Democrats control the Senate. Majority Leader Harry Reid has said he hopes to call a minimal number of votes this year. The Senate hasn’t passed a budget in three years.
A third strategy reflecting Repub-lican unity would aid the victorious presidential candidate after the primaries end in late June and before the GOP convention in late August. This is a period in which the nominee, assuming there is one, is likely to be out of money, having exhausted his resources in winning the nomination.
At least one independent political action committee, American Crossroads, is committed to taking up the slack and countering attacks by the Obama campaign on the Republican candidate. Other so-called super-PACs may join the effort with heavy buys of TV ads.
The White House has already implemented its do-nothing tactic by hiding instances of Republican cooperation. In August, Obama delivered a Rose Garden speech urging the re-authorization of funding for the Federal Aviation Administration. He was joined by AFL-CIO president Rich Trumka, who called it a jobs bill.
Last month, Republicans and Democrats negotiated a long-term extension of FAA funding. After it passed the House and Senate with strong bipartisan majorities, one might have expected a signing ceremony at the White House for a bill whose importance had been touted in a Rose Garden speech. Instead, the press secretary merely issued a statement saying the measure had been signed privately.
When the payroll tax holiday was continued through the end of this year, it too passed by overwhelming bipartisan majorities. Again, no ceremony at the White House. The same for the highway bill extension. When the president signed three trade treaties in October, he did so with little fanfare. Two House Republicans were invited, but McConnell, a leader in the years-long struggle for ratification, was not.
The president and Reid now face another awkward situation. A jobs bill to help small business, endorsed by Obama, was approved by the House last week, 390-23. Rather than adopt the House bill, Reid said he prefers something “similar,” perhaps to give it a Democratic flavor. When Reid will schedule a Senate vote is unclear.
Despite Reid’s desire for the Senate to be a graveyard for legislation in 2012, it’s bound to be a battleground in the presidential race. Last week, Senate Republicans sought to amend a transportation bill to force Obama to approve construction of the Keystone oil pipeline from Canada to the Texas Gulf Coast.
It came close to passage. The amendment got 56 votes, 4 short of the 60 required. But the pipeline actually had 59 supporters. Two Republicans (John Thune, Mark Kirk) were absent for personal reasons, and one Democrat (Mark Warner) who favors the pipeline voted no, presumably at the president’s request. Obama, fearing embarrassment, lobbied to kill the bill.
Where does all this lead us? Republicans should be encouraged. That Obama will glide to reelection is widely believed in Washington and popular with the mainstream media. The never-ending GOP presidential race has spurred a wave of optimism among Democrats and inside the Obama campaign.
They’re dreaming. Obama’s poll numbers are weak, and his economic baggage has been lightened very little by the gradual decline in unemployment. He’s in trouble, all the more because Republicans of all stripes agree his defeat is their most important objective.
In Congress and the political community, Republicans aren’t waiting for the presidential contest to end. Though it’s difficult to imagine now, Republicans in the congressional wing of the party will have the nominee’s back whenever he is crowned. Just like Jack Kemp in 1980, who gave the likely nominee an agenda even before the primaries had begun.
Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.