Posted on August 4, 2009
Republicans are feeling pretty good about where they are politically, especially compared with where they were at the beginning of the year. And things are starting to look up for the Grand Old Party, given the fumbles of the Obama administration and the foibles of congressional Democrats.
According to the latest polls, the congressional generic ballot is closer than it has been since 2004, and the president’s poll numbers are slipping, Nancy Pelosi is less popular than Dick Cheney and the American people are growing impatient with the continued failures of the stimulus bill, especially in regard to job creation.
But Republicans are not yet seen as the better alternative to Democrats. The Republican brand is still in the tank. The media are focused on the travails of leading Republicans and are using that as a way to further drive down the brand. And most Americans still don’t hear about any positive alternatives from the GOP.
So while the opportunity is there for congressional Republicans, they have yet to demonstrate that they can seize the day and take advantage of the mistakes of the Democrats.
Over the August break, congressional Republicans are going to go home, reconnect with their families, talk to their constituents and probably take some time to recharge their batteries, getting ready for what surely will be a contentious fall and a competitive election year in 2010. As they sit in their beach chairs and think about the future, here are some suggestions for things they should be thinking about to put the party in a better position to win next year:
1. Winning the past: During the past two campaign cycles, Democrats did a good job of promoting the successes of the Clinton administration and excoriating the mistakes of the Bush administration. Republicans need to paint a truer picture of what happened during the Clinton administration and use that as a model for the next election.
Bill Clinton was successful only when he had congressional Republicans checking his most liberal impulses. Republicans continually put pressure on the Clinton administration to cut taxes, while Democrats pushed the other way. Republicans, with their Contract With America, changed the trajectory of the economy, the size and scope of government and the direction of the country.
They were the reason that Clinton became a centrist. He had no choice. And if the Republicans regained control of Congress under President Barack Obama, he, too, would have no choice but to move to the center himself.
2. Winning the present: John Boehner has a simple strategy as House minority leader. It is called winning the issue even though he doesn’t have the votes to win the legislation. On issue after issue, House Republicans do their best to win on a tactical level.
And if you look at the results, they have been impressive. From winning the battle of the stimulus to branding the cap-and-trade energy bill as just another Democratic tax to fighting the Democrats to a standstill on health care, Republicans have done a good job of blunting the advantages of the congressional majority.
But for Republicans to translate their tactical wins to a broader strategic advantage, they must do a better job of presenting and branding their better alternatives. It is not enough to beat up the Democrats for having lousy ideas. They now have to start talking and getting the American people to listen to their ideas about how to fix health care, how to promote energy security and environmental safety and, most important, how their agenda will promote better job creation.
The Democrats have governed through a combination of intimidation, ideology and blunt force, stopping the Republicans from offering their alternatives, even going to the point of preventing them from using franked mail pieces to get their message out. To win the present, Republicans have to be creative in getting the American people to listen to their alternatives. If the voters know that Republicans have a better alternative, they might like them more next November.
3. Winning the future: Young voters don’t like Republicans now, and that is a problem. Neither do Hispanic voters nor African-American voters. That is also a problem, given future demographics. So Republicans have to come up with strategies that capture the imagination of young voters, attract Hispanic voters and stop alienating African-American voters.
Republicans need to find ways to recruit voters on college campuses. We need to send a clear message that we value the contributions of immigrants to this country. We need to condemn those elements, including those in the media, who use race-baiting as a political strategy. We need to harness the power and the passion of those who love Sarah Palin in ways that build a well-rounded, balanced and forward-looking party, one that’s built not on the politics of fear but, rather, on the politics of future prosperity. Only by coming up with a strategy that helps America and the Republican Party boldly embrace the future can we hope to reinvigorate a majority coalition.
John Feehery worked for the House Republican leadership from 1989 to 2005. He is the founder of The Feehery Group, a strategic advocacy firm, and blogs at www.thefeeherytheory.com.