Republicans Just Don't Get It

Washington Matters

Republicans Just Don't Get It

There are reasons why Congressional Republicans are in the mess they are in, but so far, the response from understandably panicked GOP officeholders betrays little evidence of understanding what's gone wrong. Their solution appears to be to dig the hole they are in even faster and deeper.


As fast as e-mail will travel, Republicans are blasting around quick-fix agendas and re-shaped messages that are generally intended to attract key voting groups. Some want to appeal to suburban voters, others independents, others still the party base. Some say the party needs to make more room for moderates; others say the party has already strayed too far from its conservative roots. We haven't yet seen talking points for capturing the votes of Inuit-Americans or people who think bacon is getting a raw deal from cardiologists and want greater federal protection for smoked pork products, but I imagine we will soon.


But all this talk of addressing the self interest of particular voting blocks is a big part of the GOP's problems. They've been pandering and politicking for the sole purpose of winning for so long that they don't realize they are pandering and politicking. And by doing so, they are missing one of the chief and unusual features of this campaign. It is less about specific issues than it is, shudder, process. Americans are genuinely worried about how we go about governing ourselves and whether we have the political will to tackle the vast number of problems facing the country. And the results of the past seven years is, in large part, why.


With rare exception, House GOP leaders and the president who ran in 2000 as "a uniter, not a divider" did everything they could to marginalize Democrats. (They had to be more accommodating in the Senate since they barely controlled it.) There were few efforts to build broad bipartisan consensus. Instead, Republicans passed key legislation by badgering, haranguing, parliamentary ploy and sometimes outright deception.


The mess we face with the 2001 tax cuts expiring in 2010 is completely a result of this strategy. To avoid having to round up 60 votes in the Senate to defeat a filibuster or similar parliamentary barriers, Republicans crafted a complicated strategy that would allow the tax package to pass with a simple 51-vote majority. But to do so, the size of the package had to be defined -- and the only way to do that was to have them expire. At the time, GOP leaders thought they were clever because they believed there was no way any future Congress would allow them to expire. Yes, if a more broadly acceptable, permanent package of tax cuts had been approved, it would have been more modest. But it also would have reflected a broader swath of voter sentiment and been more affordable. But such a package did not fit the zeal of the administration or the congressional leadership.


But the temporary tax cuts and other repeated fictions that Republicans kept relying upon to pass other legislation and avoid potentially vote-costing decisions -- you can wage a war without sacrifice or a real budget, you can add entitlement programs such as the Medicare prescription drug benefit without really paying for it  -- helped turn budget surpluses into deficits and made the entitlement crisis we will soon be facing even worse. And as time went on, leaders became even more rigid. House Speaker Dennis Hastert invoked the concept of  "a majority of the majority." That meant that popular bills that could pass the House with bipartisan support were held back unless  the conservative heart of the party was in favor. Leaders began pursuing issues that were of great interest to its base -- such as a futile effort to interfere with court rulings allowing Terry Schaivo to die -- but of little concern of most voters. At the same time, leaders tried to solidify the grip of the party for years to come by strengthening ties with K Street lobbyists, creating a variety of fund-raising and grass-roots organizations.


All of these tactics not only added to the hyper-partisan atmosphere that already tainted so much lawmaking, but also increasingly alienated party moderates, party conservatives angered by increased spending and voters sick of  prolonged arguments, little action and problems piling up almost as quickly as the federal deficit. Add to this an unpopular war, repeated sex and corruption scandals and glaring incompetence and mismanagement, and you have a legacy that will take years, if not decades to overcome -- even if John McCain should happen to win the presidency. Republicans who think slogans, appeals to key demographic groups and a "Contract with America" type agenda will solve anything are simply digging a deeper hole.


To become a truly competitive party again, Republicans will have to figuratively fill that hole in and start a slow rebuilding process. That means restoring trust and confidence and shaping an agenda based not on ideology, but on what Americans see as reasonable solutions to pressing problems -- out of control health costs, global warming, a weakened global image, a hollowed out military, a depleted treasury, a weakened economy and the complete lack of a coherent energy policy, to name just a few. Ideology will have to take a backseat to pragmatism and consensus-building.


Voters won't really start to sniff around the party again until they are convinced that their priorities and interests will come before those of the GOP.


We'll look at the challenges facing the Democratic Party soon.