Is the GOP ready for prime time?

All signs point to big Republican gains in November, enabling the GOP to implement its agenda. But what agenda is that?

David Frum

After the Republican triumph in 1994, the party commissioned a poll to ascertain the popularity of the "Contract with America," the policy platform that had been aggressively promoted by GOP candidates. The surprising finding? Three-quarters of voters had never heard of the Contract.

Democrats did not bother with any kind of party platform in 2006, the year they recaptured both Houses of Congress. Now in 2010, the GOP has seized a huge lead in the polls without anything like an updated contract.

Guess nobody needs them, right?

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Wrong. Republicans badly need a platform this year — not for campaigning, but for governing.

The GOP policy cupboard is bare — and politics abhors a vacuum.

A party manifesto imposes discipline on a party, giving it things to do and steering it away from things it should avoid. The alternative? The alternative is hinted at by an ominous story in Politico:

If Republicans win the House in November, John Boehner and his top lieutenants say they’re ready to spread the power.

Look for a return of committee influence in preparing legislation — re-establishing the authority of diminished chairmen — and an easing of the hammerlock that leaders of both parties have exercised. ... Boehner is mindful that "House members have a pent-up desire to legislate ... instead of having bills written in the speaker’s office," said a senior House Republican aide.

Uh oh. That "pent up desire to legislate" sounds like a joke in which the punch line is "Tammany Hall." Here’s a rule of thumb: Parties with ideas and agendas — parties that want to accomplish big things — concentrate power in the Speaker’s office. Look at the Democrats in 2009-2010, the Republicans in 1995-97, and the Democrats back in 1975-77. A strong speaker sets priorities, mobilizes majorities, creates a one-stop shop for negotiations with the other party, the Senate, and the White House.

But when a party exhausts or abandons its policy impetus, power devolves to committee chairs. Politico describes this devolution as "opening" government. Well, yes — but opening to whom? Committee chairs occupy one corner of what used to be described as the "iron triangle" — with the other two corners occupied by industry lobbyists and federal regulators.

Boehner is signaling, apparently, that the Republican congressional majority will arrive pre-exhausted, without ideas, ready to do business with K Street from Day 1. This is not good news. It's also unfortunately not surprising news. For 24 months, an emotionally intense opposition to the president has been unsupported by anything like a Republican policy agenda. The party is agreed on holding a vote on the repeal of Obamacare. Beyond that — it's all a big void.

Politics abhors a vacuum however, and into that void all kinds of mischief can seep. We may be subject to endless investigations of petty scandals rather than measures to restart the stalled recovery. In advance of the election, Republicans might be able to agree on a payroll tax holiday, a redoubled infrastructure program, and federal encouragement of nuclear power generation. But afterwards, defining policy will get much tougher. The iron triangle will assert itself; rather than a finite set of promises to redeem, GOP lawmakers will confront an open-ended set of deals to be made.

In 1994, Republicans arrived in the majority with plans developed over more than a decade of serious work: welfare reform, Medicare reform, budget balancing, education choice. Where is today’s equivalent? Republicans have done insufficient serious policy work over the past half dozen years. The legacy of this inactivity is a party on the brink of power, lacking an intellectual framework for the use of that power.

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