To pick up seats in the midterm elections, Republicans, as the opposition party, must convince voters they should be trusted to govern. And to that end, the party has a bold new campaign strategy: do nothing.
Though we're almost nine months out from election day, Republicans have decided their best shot at winning in November is not to go big with sweeping policy proposals, but rather to go small and avoid tripping over themselves. The party is "focused on calming their divided ranks in the months ahead," according to The Washington Post's Robert Costa, "mostly by touting proposals that have wide backing within the GOP and shelving any big-ticket legislation for the rest of the year."
More from Costa:
Republican leaders are also quite aware of voters' skepticism about the GOP's policies, and most believe that a softer sell, rather than an assertive attempt to pass major bills, is a smart play. A Washington Post-ABC News poll in January found that just 19 percent of Americans have confidence in congressional Republicans to make the right decisions for the country, while 80 percent do not…
…In the meantime, avoiding unruly theatrics and trying to package the GOP as a ready-to-govern party is the leadership's chief concern. [Washington Post]
On the surface, that might seem like a reasonable idea. Split by a pronounced ideological divide, the GOP has had a hard time finding consensus among even its own members; last week, various ideas for attaching strings to the latest debt ceiling vote fell apart for lack of party support. And when the GOP has taken a strong stand on pressing issues — say, shutting down the government over ObamaCare — the results have been less than stellar.
The big problem with the do-nothing routine though is that it rings hollow. The GOP is essentially arguing it is the "ready-to-govern" party while at the same time admitting it is totally unable to govern.
"We don't have 218 votes in the House for the big issues," Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) told the Post, "so what else are we going to do?"
Nunes' complaint fudges the truth a bit. The House probably does have 218 votes for popular policies like comprehensive immigration reform — it just doesn't have 218 Republican votes. Sitting pat on an issue because it doesn't have near-unanimous support within one party is hardly an effective way to govern.
So what about those small, GOP-friendly ideas the party is expected to champion instead? Don't those prove some degree of leadership? Well, they could, but they'd first need to have a reasonable degree of substance, something that is, to this point, lacking.
Writing in National Review last week, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) outlined the GOP's agenda as such: "House Republicans reject President Obama's new normal and instead embrace the idea that we can build a policy agenda focused on bold, conservative solutions to the most pressing problems facing American families today. In short, an agenda to help build an America that works again."
Those solutions: vague platitudes about "regulatory relief" and a "pro-growth energy policy." Even on the most loaded political issue of the year, ObamaCare, Republicans have only recently come up with an alternative plan, and even then their plan is one critics have panned as flawed or incomplete.
In other words, the GOP is ignoring the lessons of 1994, when the party offered a clear counterpoint to Democratic rule and emerged victorious in November. Backed by Newt Gingrich's Contract with America, the GOP reclaimed the House in 1994 for the first time in four decades.
Instead, Republicans hope to replicate their victory in the 2010 midterms when they channeled visceral outrage over the recession and ObamaCare to deliver a "shellacking" to the president and his party. Buoyed by the passion of an ascendant Tea Party, the GOP then could just run against the president and bat away concerns about their lack of a clear legislative roadmap and their increasingly conservative make-up. But there's a fundamental difference this year: The GOP is no longer completely out of power.
Congressional Republicans now have to talk about what they've done since 2010 (and Senate Republicans don't exactly get a free pass either). As shown by that Washington Post-ABC News poll — the one that found just 19 percent of Americans believe congressional Republicans make the right decisions for the country — the Republican party has a serious governance problem — and just ignoring it won't make it go away.
Republicans are sure betting it will, though. With President Obama and his signature health care law still largely unpopular, Republicans are content to assume that prevailing public opinion will hold firm until November. They are, in other words, eschewing leadership for fear that voters will realize before November they don't like what the GOP has to offer.