The conventional wisdom in politics is that you have to stand for something. Just saying "no" all the time isn't good governance, particularly in a country that faces mass unemployment, a really expensive health-care system, and broken immigration policies.
It isn't good politics either. The GOP learned this the hard way in 2012, when its "party of no" reputation hurt the Republican ticket with an array of constituencies and demographics, allowing President Obama to cruise to re-election despite an abysmal economy. The "no" movement reached its apotheosis in October 2013, when Republican naysayers shut down the government in a futile bid to defund ObamaCare.
Indeed, Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has recently sent signals that the GOP-controlled House could move on a modest immigration reform package, a tacit acknowledgment that the party has to at least appear to be proactively solving problems.
But as the botched rollout of the Affordable Care Act shows, there are significant political perils to sticking your neck out as well. And as the second half of the legislative session gets underway, some GOP lawmakers and operatives have suggested the party may dig in deeper on the stonewalling tactic. That's because while a refusal to compromise backfired before, it could actually be an effective strategy ahead of the midterm elections.
To be sure, lawmakers from both parties will likely tread carefully over the coming months to avoid rankling voters before November. But the GOP has even more reason to exercise caution.
For one, doing something poorly could be more disastrous for the GOP than doing nothing at all.
"The bigger strategic imperative for Republicans is to make sure they don't screw it up," John Feehery, a Republican strategist, told CBS, "because if they don't screw it up they'll be in the driver's seat for the election."
Republicans do have the upper hand at the moment. Thanks to ObamaCare, the president's approval rating is lower than it's ever been, and the GOP has an early lead in the generic ballot. If the election were held today, Republicans would probably do pretty well.
On another front, the GOP would rather keep talking about ObamaCare's shortcomings than just about anything else. Hammering the Affordable Care Act's obvious failures — including millions of people having to switch to more expensive health-care plans — is a much stronger campaign message than underscoring GOP-friendly alternatives that would, in all likelihood, fall far short of ObamaCare's goals of providing affordable coverage to millions of uninsured Americans.
In other words, in 2014 you can expect scant discussion from Republicans about covering those with pre-existing conditions, and a lot more of this:
— Senator Ted Cruz (@SenTedCruz) January 2, 2014
Then there's the GOP's own internal problems. Given the divisions between establishment types and Tea Partiers, the House GOP caucus often had trouble advancing a unified position last year. And while Boehner dropped the far right in promoting the year-end bipartisan budget deal, he's probably not going to make that a habit for fear of riling the base in the run-up to the election — immigration reform be damned.
"There is a sense of, 'Don't mess with the sleeping beast, as much as possible,'" a senior House GOP aide told Time.
Meanwhile, over in the Senate, there are rumblings that GOP members will sit on their hands as payback for Democrats changing the rules governing filibusters in a way that weakened the minority party.
To be sure, a strategy of inaction could easily backfire. It may not be enough for Republicans to simply say what they're against without offering a Plan B. That will become particularly salient if people come around on the health-care law, income inequality remains an issue, and immigration reform returns to center stage. Democrats are already lining up behind a range of popular initiatives, including extending unemployment benefits and raising the minimum wage — both of which have been met with a loud "no" from the GOP.
Still, some Republicans are betting ObamaCare will be as unpopular in November as it is in January. At this point, their electoral fortunes may depend on it.