Congressional Republicans who don’t think the party needs an agenda should consider the performance of Rep. Pete Sessions and Sen. John Cornyn on Meet the Press over the weekend. Asked about their affirmative program, the leaders of the GOP campaign committees in the House and the Senate sounded a very uncertain trumpet — indeed, one that was halting to the point of being embarrassing.
Sessions talked of balancing the budget, although without daring to mention anything close to a specific, and of reading bills before they pass. Out of desperation, Cornyn was forced to say he’d like to see the work of Obama’s fiscal commission before addressing spending. If GOP consultants who are advising the party to avoid embracing a substantive agenda prior to the November elections get their way, this will be the pitiful Republican dance for the next three-and-a-half months.
We understand the Republicans’ temptation to believe that they can beat the Democrats with nothing. The public has recoiled from President Obama’s agenda and seems set to swing to the Republicans as a check against his liberal overreaching. Why not just play it safe and ride the wave that’s already building?
One, this wouldn’t be as safe as it seems. The consultants think Republicans risk putting targets on their backs by associating themselves with particular policy ideas. But Republicans will be targeted regardless. The White House wants to define them as mindless apostles of “No,” and as “Bush Republicans.” Both of these charges could hurt, and they are more likely to stick if Republicans lack a forward-looking agenda of their own.
Two, a campaign agenda is, if nothing else, a sign of seriousness for voters. The danger in the kind of cynical calculation urged by the consultants is always that the public will recognize it for exactly that and react accordingly.
Three, if Republicans plan on having a majority in either house after November, they had better have some idea in advance of how they will conduct themselves in power. If they have an agenda that has won at least loose assent from voters, they’ll be better-off than if they were trying to come up with something on the fly in the flush of victory, when giddiness will rule and special interests will all want a piece of the pie.
Fourth, Republicans should have confidence in their ideas. If they can’t offer an alternative to Obama now — with the president sagging in the polls, with tea partiers in the streets, with conservative sentiment on the upswing across the board in the public — they should be in a different business. This needn’t entail recklessness. The Contract with America of 1994 wasn’t a radical document, but it did point in a clearly different direction than the Clinton Democrats. This is what Republicans need now (watch this space for our ideas) and what House Republicans have been planning on — so long as they don’t flinch. Any of them inclined that way should ask themselves if they want to run a potentially historic campaign sounding as empty and evasive as their campaign chairmen on Sunday.