The Magazine

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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This has become a pattern with the president. During the debt ceiling battle in 2011, he came back to Boehner at the 11th hour with a request (or demand) for 50 percent more in new tax revenue. He vacillated on whether he wanted Republican input on the 2009 stimulus, at first encouraging the GOP to come to him with ideas, then icily shutting them down when they did so. He flip-flopped after Scott Brown won the Massachusetts Senate seat, temporarily scuttling Obamacare. At first, he appeared solicitous of Republican suggestions, going so far as to hold a bipartisan summit at Blair House. Then he changed his mind, forcing the massive new health care entitlement through the Congress on a party-line vote. It is very difficult to negotiate with somebody who plays these games. How can he be trusted? At any moment, he could scuttle a deal, then hold a press conference to blame Republicans.

This points to the third liability the Republicans face—the House of Representatives. While it is fortunate that the GOP controls it because it can veto the liberal agenda, it is a perfect straw man for this president. And indeed, President Obama has used the bully pulpit masterfully, convincing the public that congressional Republicans are to blame for the breakdown in Washington governance. While insider accounts—such as Bob Woodward’s The Price of Politics—paint a vastly different picture, those points are lost on the public, which is predisposed to blame Congress.

 With this political inventory in hand, what practical advice can we give the Republican party? What can it actually do to improve its position between now and the 2016 presidential election?

The first suggestion is also the easiest: Stop the Obama agenda. House conservatives unfortunately are in no position to enact a conservative alternative. Nor, for that matter, can they even force President Obama to reject it; Senate Democrats will reliably table anything that makes Obama look bad well before it gets to his desk. However, they can stop the advance of the left. This is not nothing, considering the ambitions of the president. What’s more, the implementation of his centerpiece program, Obamacare, has been problematic, to say the least, and House Republicans are in prime position to keep Democrats from “fixing” the law through more taxes, regulations, and governmental control.

Beyond that, matters become much more complicated. Hindsight is 20/20, and it appears clear in retrospect that congressional Republicans made a mistake in trying to force President Obama to deal responsibly with the country’s fiscal problems. He is not interested in leading (or following) on this issue. Worse, he has used the megaphone of the presidency to cast Republicans as the irresponsible party.

This is probably the GOP’s number one danger moving forward. It cannot allow President Obama to create the impression that Republicans are too radical or dangerous to govern. Without sacrificing its veto power over the liberal agenda, the best approach for the GOP is a strategic withdrawal from the battlefield. If there is no forcing this president to be responsible, and if the GOP is hopelessly outgunned in the PR war by the partnership of the White House and a pliant press corps, then the only sensible move is to demur. Republicans should pass whatever symbolic pieces of legislation are necessary to stake out the GOP’s position, but when it comes down to a choice between some kind of crisis (be it a government shutdown, the “fiscal cliff,” or whatever) and letting Obama have his way, Republicans should choose the latter.

Nancy Pelosi’s tenure as speaker in 2007 and 2008 is actually a good model for Republicans. The Democrats won in 2006 on a wave of antiwar sentiment, but so long as George W. Bush held the veto pen, there was relatively little they could do. Sure, congressional Democrats could have cut off war funding, but that would have been a PR disaster. So Pelosi and her leadership team passed symbolic bills to end the war, then acceded to President Bush’s requests for funding.

While avoiding unproductive confrontations in Washington, Republicans should turn their attention to the states as the main arena for conservative reforms. Which state leaders have been successful? Why have they succeeded? How can these lessons be translated to the national stage? Republicans should be optimistic about their future because, with so many leaders on the state level, it is possible for the GOP to get answers to these questions between now and 2016. Put another way, the GOP is like a baseball team that just missed the playoffs, but is fortunate to have an excellent system of farm clubs.

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