Memo to GOP: Stop Talking to Yourselves

Washington Matters

Memo to GOP: Stop Talking to Yourselves

We pointed out yesterday that while Americans overwhelmingly approve of President Obama's  efforts to be bipartisan, they don't feel that Republicans are meeting him halfway. The GOP reaction to Obama's first address to Congress shows why -- and actually gives them a roadmap to rebuilding their party.

Republican's aren't talking to the public at large -- they're speaking to their base. And until they figure out that  bipartisanship really has only a little to do with how well they cooperate across the aisle and everything to do with whether they are listening and responding to a broad swath of voters, they will remain a minority party.

Obama's speech focused on the economy and a national angst so broad and deep that consumer confidence is at historic lows. In doing so, he singled out the problems that he believes got us in this mess -- rapacious health care costs, a failing education system and fiscal and regulatory irresponsibility, chief among them. He argued forcefully that only addressing all of them will get us out of this mess.

How did Republicans try to counter? By brushing aside Obama's analysis and main points and relying on stale arguments aimed at issues most Americans regard as tertiary in a time of national crisis. In other words, rather than engage Obama -- indeed, rather than address the crisis directly -- Republicans continued to operate in the same echo chamber of GOP rhetoric that stopped serving them well several years ago. Lousiana Gov. Bobby Jindal's formal response on behalf of the opposition after Obama's speech was only the highest profile example of the party's tin ear.

Jindal focused on the Republican Right's Holy Trinity of the past three decades -- lower taxes, reduced spending, smaller government. In fact, he apologized to the American public for the party breaking faith with it -- not because of failed policies, but for not being doctrinaire enough.  "Our party is determined to regain your trust. We will do so by standing up for the principles that we share, the principles you elected us to fight for, the principles that built this into the greatest, most prosperous country on Earth," is the pledge he made.

Let's leave aside the simply bizarre logic of Republicans promising to pursue "the principles you elected us to fight for" less than four months after Americans actually voted for the other party in large numbers. Even those who agree with Jindal and congressional Republicans philisophically recognize that most Americans don't. Jindal's attack on big government is essentially an attack on the widespread hope that Washington will do anything and everything within its considerable power to minimize the depth and impact of the recession. And the other things he told the country Republicans fretted about -- tax increases for those with the highest incomes and, yes, again, for goodness sakes, earmarks -- simply don't get the pulses racing of those who are without a job or without health or whose plan for retirement right now is crossing their fingers or saying incantations over their 401(k) account statements.

And that is the GOP's big problem. The party is apologizing to the 30-35% of Americans that make up its conservative base and who believe with all their hearts that the country's biggest problem was that the Republican administration and Congress that ran the country for most of the decade was not Republican enough. Whether their policies are right or wrong, Republicans will remain in political exile as long as they keep talking among themselves while Obama talks to -- and listens to -- the country as a whole.