Magazine April 20, 2009, Issue

How We Fight

(Roman Genn)
The right way to take on the Obama administration

The Republican party is now consolidated in its opposition to President Obama. Most of its members have decided that his central political project is to bring social democracy to these shores. While bipartisanship may be possible on a case-by-case basis, Republicans cannot cooperate in that project. The party’s congressmen were nearly unanimous in rejecting the Obama-Pelosi stimulus, and Republican voters’ approval of the new president has dropped quite a bit.

The consolidation of the opposition party is not enough to guarantee its success. Republicans are a minority in the country and the Congress. Independents and disaffected Democrats would have to join them for Obama to suffer legislative or electoral defeats. But broad Republican unity is a precondition for those outcomes. If a sizable minority of congressional Republicans had voted for the stimulus, the party’s odds of making gains in this year’s elections or next year’s would be much lower. So too if the passage of the stimulus had been accompanied by rising support for Obama among Republican voters. In either scenario, division and demoralization would have fed on each other.

As it is, Republican officeholders are no longer worried that voters will punish them for taking on Obama’s agenda. But they are acutely aware that they have to pick their battles. “One has to do triage on bad ideas,” says conservative activist Grover Norquist. “A bunch of bad ideas are just going to happen because [Democrats] have the votes.” On some issues, though, Obama might have to withdraw or moderate his proposals. On others, Republicans might lose but still help their long-term prospects.

Republicans have achieved near-unanimity on two items. If Democrats try to bring back the “Fairness Doctrine,” Republicans will respond furiously. That regulation would require radio stations to present politically balanced commentary, which, given the long-running failure of liberal talk radio, would mean the end of the only medium that conservatives have dominated. Leading Democrats know that raising this issue would stir up more trouble for them than enthusiasm, but bureaucratic attempts to achieve the goals of the Fairness Doctrine under a different name cannot be ruled out.

Senate Republicans are also united against labor’s number-one priority this year: a set of labor-law changes that, among other things, would make it possible for unions to start representing workforces without secret-ballot elections. Moderate Republicans who oppose the bill will draw attacks from unions. But defense of the secret ballot gives them a powerful argument. Arlen Specter, the Pennsylvania moderate, was the last Senate Republican to hold out the possibility of supporting the bill. But he is facing a conservative primary challenge — he was one of three Republicans to support the stimulus — and announced his opposition. If the Republicans hold firm, they can successfully filibuster the bill.

Even though Republicans are slightly less unified on the president’s proposal to cap carbon emissions, it too is in serious danger. Some Republicans, such as Sen. John McCain, support the idea. But industrial-state Democrats are balking. A prolonged debate on the subject probably would not help the bill’s chances. Even voters who fear global warming are unwilling to see their energy bills rise a lot to mitigate far-off risks. The recession is also making the environment a lower priority for voters. Selling emissions permits would raise a lot of money for the government, so losing on cap-and-trade might force Obama to scale back some of his spending promises. If Congress also rejects Obama’s proposal to raise taxes on charitable donations and mortgage interest, Obama’s hole gets deeper.

On three other issues, Obama is more likely to get his way. The most consequential of these issues is health care. Republicans worry that liberal health-care reform would make voters more dependent on government and thus better disposed toward liberal policies and politicians. But voters and businesses are unhappy with the current system, Democrats are united, at least at the moment, and some Republicans are tempted to compromise.

Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah has recently said that he would like to get a health-care bill enacted as a tribute to his ailing friend, Sen. Ted Kennedy. Chuck Grassley, the leading Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, has expressed interest in a deal. And several Republicans — including Bob Bennett of Utah and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina — have endorsed a bill that purports to deliver universal health coverage through the private sector. It does this by turning private insurers into heavily regulated public utilities and forcing people to buy their products.

Most Republicans will find it hard to embrace that position. But Republican strategists nearly uniformly believe that Republicans cannot get by without presenting a big health-care reform of their own. To be attractive, that alternative must help more people buy insurance, make that insurance cheaper, and make it easier for people to take their insurance with them from job to job. It need not, however, cover absolutely everyone — and probably should not, given the mandates and costs associated with universality.

There is nothing Republicans can do to keep taxes from rising. The Bush tax cuts are already scheduled to expire. Republicans can, however, resist any tax increases beyond the restoration of the late-Clinton-era tax code. States are already raising taxes to deal with their budget crunches, and not just taxes on high earners. “If people get mad about taxes, they don’t sit back and carefully think through if they’re mad at the state legislature or the county assessor or the federal government,” says influential former Republican congressman Vin Weber. “They just get mad about taxes.” Which is likely bad news for Democrats.

Another thing Republicans cannot do is to keep liberal activists off the federal bench. In the Bush years many of them went on record saying that it is unfair, and maybe even unconstitutional, to deny confirmation to judicial nominees who had the support of 51 senators. They cannot all credibly flip-flop now. What Republicans can do, however, is to spotlight the most outrageous nominees, particularly the ones who have shown a proclivity for using judicial power to promote liberal social values, and use adverse publicity to block them. They can also spend time making the case for a judiciary confined to its proper constitutional role. An extended, slowed-down debate on judicial nominees is in the party’s interest. (And if it takes time away from the rest of Obama’s agenda, so much the better.)

Republicans should beware of getting bogged down in procedural arguments. Because centrist pundits are questioning whether Obama has put too many issues on his plate, Republicans are echoing that concern. They are also criticizing Democrats who suggest using procedural maneuvers to enact sweeping legislation on health care and the environment with a simple majority vote of the Senate. The more they make these arguments, though, the more Republicans will come across as mere obstructionists rather than as principled opponents of Obama’s agenda. The public will not follow inside-the-Beltway debates about the proper scope of “budget reconciliation” in congressional rules. Republicans should not let such wrangling overshadow their case on the merits against Obama’s plans.

Surprising issues will pop up between now and the 2010 elections. Nobody would have predicted in January 1993 that President Clinton’s choice of a surgeon general would become a serious political liability, and nobody much remembers that appointee, Joycelyn Elders, now. But she became a high-profile illustration of the administration’s determination to push the envelope on cultural liberalism. Republicans should keep an eye out for such issues.

The conventional wisdom is that Republicans cannot take either the House or the Senate in 2010, and that in the Senate in particular “the map” will work against them: More Republican seats will be up for grabs than Democratic ones. But “the map” didn’t favor Democrats in 2006, and few people thought they would take the Senate as well as the House, and yet they did. We don’t know what the political environment in the fall of 2010 will be. But credible Republican candidates are considering Senate races to take Democratic seats in Connecticut, North Dakota, Delaware, Illinois, Nevada, and New York. (In Delaware, Republican congressman Mike Castle leads Beau Biden, the vice president’s son.) If Republicans take a few of these seats — all currently or formerly held by high-ranking Democrats, none of them Southern — the party’s revival will be well underway. One test for Michael Steele, the new party chairman, will be whether he gives these candidates the resources they need.

“This is a good environment for recruiting [candidates],” says former RNC chairman Ed Gillespie. “There’s a sense out there for Republicans of rising fortunes. The pendulum may be about to swing soon.”

Gillespie (like other Republican strategists I consulted) does not overstate the Republican recovery. He understands that President Obama and the Democrats are not in serious political danger. Yet.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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