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The House GOP caucus is in complete disarray after Kevin McCarthy, the favorite to become the next speaker after John Boehner resigns, announced out of nowhere on Thursday that he wasn't running anymore. McCarthy's stated rationale? That the House GOP is all but ungovernable ("They're going to eat you and chew you up," he said), with far too many members in very safe red districts who are pushed by their conservative constituents to make unreasonable demands in a system of divided government and in an era of partisan rancor.
But eventually, no matter how impossibly hard it is to convince them to take the job, someone in the Republican Party is going to be the next speaker of the House of Representatives. Here's what they should do, whoever they are.
1. Demand that Planned Parenthood be defunded
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Republicans have maxed out their temper tantrum credit. But this issue is actually important. In my eyes, and those of millions of other pro-life conservatives, Planned Parenthood is a terrible organization. We have a political opportunity to save countless lives by crippling it. The next speaker absolutely should be willing to shut down the government over this issue.
But she should also be smart about it.
First, the new speaker should raise as much money from independent groups and those other shadowy money men to produce and air ads pleading the GOP's case. Because if and when the shutdown happens, and the blame game begins, you can bet the pro-choice media will be in the Democrats' court. But tough ads focusing on late-term abortion, and the shenanigans exposed by those secretly recorded Planned Parenthood videos, would be very effective with swing voters who may not be die-hard pro-lifers but who are still very uncomfortable with abortion. If the GOP plays this right, it can get a lot of people on board with defunding Planned Parenthood. And raising that money early on and quickly will signal to the Obama administration that the new speaker is not bluffing, that she's ready for a fight, and that she wants to win it.
Second, she should be willing to throw in a sweetener. Defunding Planned Parenthood should be paired with tax credits for companies that offer maternity leave to draw pro-life Democrats in and give some cover for the inevitable "war on women" attacks. At this point in his presidency, Barack Obama is interested in cementing his legacy. It might sound impossible to imagine him signing a bill to defund Planned Parenthood — but there are surely some things for which he would make this concession. For example: allowing the Senate's comprehensive immigration reform bill to go up for a vote in the House; backing a bipartisan criminal justice reform plan, like Tea Party Sen. Mike Lee's (there are others in the House); agreeing to reinstate the so-called Hastert Rule, which automatically raises the debt ceiling in order to avoid further debt ceiling showdowns. All of these happen to be good policy. And they also might be enough to get Obama to (very reluctantly) defund Planned Parenthood. This is how divided government works: Both sides make tradeoffs.
Finally, by going to the mattresses over Planned Parenthood, the new speaker will not only strike a blow for justice, she will buy herself a lot of political capital with the Republican base. Maybe less so if it comes with an amnesty bill. But the next speaker should be willing to forcefully make the case that defunding Planned Parenthood was worth signing up for bipartisan immigration reform that is clearly defensible on the merits ("We're not going to deport 11 million illegal immigrants").
2. Work on small-bore stuff that can make the world better
Get some achievements under your belt. Show you can govern. Get everyone on board. No matter how small. Something that can build goodwill. The ideas are out there. Even things as small-bore as legalizing raw milk, or slightly improving border security, or doing an efficiency audit of the U.S. government, or etching the word "JOBS" in bright lights on the Congress dome.
3. Pass popular stuff that Obama won't sign
There is popular stuff that Obama won't sign. Passing it would put the Democratic Party on the defensive. A 20-week abortion ban would be a good start. How about the Keystone pipeline? A resolution to have a bipartisan team of experts look at the likely jobs impact of the TPP trade deal. Killing the Export-Import Bank, and fighting other egregious bits of corporate welfare the Obama administration supports, like risk corridors in ObamaCare, or support for the green energy industry. This is just smart politics. Have the GOP be on offense from the center for once.
4. Come up with a clear, compelling agenda
This is the key thing. Tea Party Republicans are fired up, and they're right to be, but they don't know what they want. And yet, there is so much to do. The last time a speaker really changed things was Newt Gingrich in the 1990s. He had an agenda — one carefully crafted to appeal to both conservatives and moderates. Paul Ryan won so much goodwill and political capital a few years ago precisely because he has plans.
So what should the new House GOP agenda be? The Rubio-Lee tax plan would be a place to start. Wage subsidies. Expanding school choice by making it easier to start charter schools. There are a lot more ideas out there for truly conservative reform.
By doing this, the speaker wouldn't just pacify antsy Tea Partiers and win political capital. She would also change the conversation in the Republican presidential race by making it so that the Republican Party, again, has an agenda that candidates would have to define themselves for or against.
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