John Feehery: Speaking Engagements

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After Action Review

Posted on February 14, 2009

(This originally appeared in The Politico)



Congressional Republicans are probably feeling that they did a pretty good job of poking holes in the president’s stimulus package. They probably feel good that a sizeable portion of the country agrees with them that the package will not work to stimulate the economy. And they probably feel that they finally have a political issue to differentiate themselves from the Democrats.

Karl Rove congratulated them in an op-ed on their principled opposition to a bad plan. Talk radio hosts are ecstatic that they voted as a bloc (except for the moderate sell-outs, in talk show parlance) against the package. And the NRCC is so confident they have a winning issue that they are preparing political ads to run in vulnerable Democratic districts. 

Indeed, while some Blue Dog House Democrats had second thoughts about voting for this package, others still voted against it on final passage. And yes, a sizeable group of Americans, about 38 percent, think it won’t work. 

But I don’t think the GOP should cheer too long or too hard about the end results. After all, really bad policy is about to be signed into law by the president. The government will expand dramatically because of this stimulus package. And at some point, the government will have to raise taxes to pay for this spending spree.

An after action review should be done by congressional Republicans to see what they could have done better. Much has been said by the media about the president and his quest for bipartisanship. That is largely a phony issue. The legislative process respects, at the end of the day, only power. Who has the power, who has the bully pulpit, who has the ability to bend the will of the Congress to achieve necessary results? These are the only real questions that matter in Congress.

Republicans have limited power, which requires them to do three things to maximize it. The first requirement is to create a winning message. The second requirement is to maximize unity. The third requirement is to coordinate closely with outside allies.

The GOP’s effort was lacking in all three departments. The House GOP did a pretty good job of poking holes in the package. They made fun of the dumb spending, they raised the specter of the huge spending increase, and they questioned its overall effectiveness. But they came up with no clear coordinated message about what they wanted to do. The House came up with a package that promised twice the jobs at half the cost, while the Senate came up with a plan focused on housing. Conservatives attacked the housing plan, while the House plan was never adequately explained their plan in such a way that it could be understood easily by most Americans.




They failed in achieving unity. While the House Republicans kept their team unified, the Senate Republicans did not. House Republicans might feel good about that, but they shouldn’t. House Republicans only have power if Senate Republicans remain unified. And that requires teamwork between the bodies that is extraordinarily difficult to achieve, but essential for victory. House Republicans love to complain about the squishes in the Senate, but without those squishes, they are irrelevant. Worse for House Republicans, several Republican governors openly supported the package. That diminished whatever influence they might have had on the process by muddying the message, especially back home.


Of course, some may ask, why are House Republicans important at all in this process?


Because they go first. They debate first. They amend first. They vote first. And those opening volleys set the tone for the rest of the debate. Should Senate moderates feel comfortable with that tone, they fall in line. But should they feel uncomfortable with the tone, they do their own thing. Quite obviously, Republican Sens. Olympia Snowe (Maine), Susan Collins (Maine) and Arlen Specter (Pa.) felt they had to cut their own deal in the Upper Chamber. Now, they are getting considerable grief for their “treason” but I doubt that bothers them.



A final element comes with outside allies. The Chamber of Commerce and National Association of Manufacturers are usually reliable Republican allies, but they bailed on this vote. In fact, they both key-voted the stimulus against the Republican position. That is an untenable position for the GOP to survive. Just imagine if Labor had key-vote any of former President George W. Bush’s agenda items. Clearly, the business community wanted something to get done. So why did Republicans largely ignore them?

A winning message, team unity, and outside alliances are the three elements of a winning strategy. It takes hard work to maximize the limited GOP leverage to get a policy victory, but it is essential for the coming fights on health care reform, taxes, entitlements and other big issues. And it is possible. 

In 1993 and 1994, Republicans won the day by beating Hillary health care. They did it by coordinating closely not only within Congress, but also with the nation’s governors and RNC Chairman Haley Barbour. They came up with winning messages (the incredible complexity of the new health care bureaucracy as envisaged by Hillary, among others). They worked closely with outside business groups. Some of those groups bolted and some others wanted to bolt to the Democrats, but a solid core worked with the minority to craft a winning strategy (think Harry and Louise). And finally, Republican came up with a better, more popular, bipartisan health care reform (the Rowland plan) that would have cost less and been more effective for the American people. This package scared the Democratic leadership so much, they decided to ditch the whole idea of health care reform in the 103rd Congress. 

In other words, because of the leadership of Bob Michel, Bob Dole and Haley Barbour, they stymied the drive by the Clinton administration to nationalize health care, a defeat from which the Clintons never recovered. They did it by maximizing their leverage, coordinating closely, messaging correctly, and building important outside alliances. They stopped bad policy and offered good policy in its place, an offer that partisan Democrats unceremoniously refused.


Some sort of stimulus was going to pass this Congress. It was only a matter of time. But had the Republicans maximized their leverage, coordinated their message better and unfitted their party, they might have forced even more changes to the ultimate package, changes that might have spared the country the pain of stupid spending and the inevitable tax increases that come along with it.

So while Republicans should feel good that they won the intellectual argument this time, they should plan to win the day on the next major Obama initiative. They can only win, however, if they do a better job of uniting internally, coordinating externally, and messaging cleanly and effectively. John Feehery worked for the House Republican leadership from 1989 to 2005. He is the founder of The Feehery Group, a strategic advocacy firm. He blogs at www.thefeeherytheory.com.