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Is a 'pick your battles' strategy key to the GOP's future?
Some party leaders are calling for a less confrontational stance toward the president
"We have to be smart," says Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.). "We have to show prudence."
"We have to be smart," says Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.). "We have to show prudence." Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
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s a group of Republican and Democratic senators prepares to unveil a comprehensive bill to reform the nation's immigration system, the Capitol finds itself catching a glimpse of that rarest of beasts: A bipartisan attempt to tackle one of the country's thorniest problems. And we may be seeing more of the same in the months to come, though perhaps for reasons that have little to do with the desire to cooperate. For the GOP, fresh off a soul-searching conference in Charlotte, N.C., a more conciliatory approach is being seen in some quarters as the best way to return to power, after four years of nearly unified opposition resulted in President Obama's re-election. As Jonathan Martin at Politico reports:

[T]op GOP officials are calling for a more strategic mix of opposition and accommodation, though of course they wouldn't dare call it that. Broadly put, it looks something like this: Fight Obama on some issues but don't give him easy public relations wins by getting bogged down in fiscal fights and obstructing proposals like immigration reform. And, oh yes, offer an agenda of your own.

Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan has been the most explicit about this new tack and gave it a name, or perhaps a euphemism, in a speech in Washington on Saturday at a conference staged by the National Review Institute: "Prudence."

"He'll try to divide us with phony emergencies and bogus deals," Ryan warned of Obama. "He'll try to get us to fight with each other — to question each other's motives — so we don't challenge him. If we play into his hands, we will betray the voters who supported us — and the country we mean to serve. We can't let that happen. We have to be smart. We have to show prudence." [Politico]

Such a strategy would require the GOP to walk a fine line between showing it can appeal to a more diverse array of constituents and remaining true to its principles. According to Jennifer Rubin at The Washington Post:

There is unlikely to be complete agreement  among conservatives on which battles to fight to the end and on which Republicans can simply register their objections and move on. But if Republicans utilize some of the criteria laid out above they will make wiser choices and have a batting average above .000. Fighting the wrong battles, and doing it a lot, are harmful to the credibility and survival of Republicans straining to convince Americans that they can govern responsibly. Failing to fight any battles is harmful to establishing a clear contrast between the parties and making the case for the GOP's vision. [The Washington Post]

Indeed, Ryan's name has been bandied about a lot in conservative circles as an example of how lawmakers can both compromise and remain ideologically coherent. As Robert Costa at National Review writes:

[H]is post-election reserve and even-tempered manner reflect more than his sensibility; they also reflect his politics. He is deeply concerned about the GOP's future, and the theme of sagacity has been a mainstay of his speeches…

On Capitol Hill, examples of Ryan's own prudence are plentiful. Working with Speaker John Boehner, he engineered the GOP's debt-limit strategy, in which the House passed a short-term extension that also pressured Senate Democrats to craft a budget. During the fiscal-cliff negotiations, he was a stalwart Boehner supporter, and one of only 85 Republicans to stick by the speaker when the compromise came to the floor. "If you think a bill should pass, you should vote for it," Ryan says. "I had problems with that bill, but I wanted to prevent tax increases."

Ryan's approach has once again established him as influential player. Sources say Boehner and other House veterans have privately praised his commitment to governing, and his historical understanding of Republican risks during divided government. [National Review]

However, if GOP leaders have settled on the outline of a game plan (and that's a big "if" — there are still many conservatives who oppose a "pick your battles" strategy), it has yet to sort out the details on issues ranging from gun control to gay marriage. More importantly, Republicans "can't agree on what the party's positive agenda out to be," says Molly Ball at The Altantic:

This is the real crisis facing the GOP: Articulating a set of stances on issues that majorities of voters agree with, in a way that convinces people they'd be able to govern if given the chance. [The Atlantic]

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