Republicans for What?
The GOP won’t get the victory it seeks without a positive agenda.
Updated Sept. 4, 2014 5:09 p.m. ET
The post-Labor Day election campaign is underway, and the early conventional wisdom is that Republican hopes of a 2010-style wave are fading. GOP gains in the House could only be a few seats and the six pickups to take the Senate are still uncertain. This is coming from the usual liberal suspects, but it is also whispered by GOP strategists. Maybe Republicans should try to improve their odds by telling voters what they would do if they win.
By any typical political measure, this ought to be a great Republican year. President Obama is widely unpopular, the Senate playing field is largely in conservative states, the tide of war is rising around the world, and gains in stocks and other asset prices haven’t translated into higher wages for most Americans. Many Republicans look at this and think they can win merely by running to be a check on Mr. Obama.
The trouble is that the House GOP already provides that check, and voters are even more unhappy with Congress than they are with Mr. Obama. The kamikaze government shutdown, among other fits of temper, has so tarnished the GOP reputation that even many voters who dislike Mr. Obama might stay home in November.
It’s true that individual candidates are running on their own issues. Repeal ObamaCare is popular in GOP precincts, even if can’t happen with Mr. Obama in office. And everyone favors the Keystone XL pipeline.
But the lack of any common GOP agenda is leading to the perception of a policy vacuum that plays into Mr. Obama’s critique that Republicans are opposed to everything. The President’s proposal to raise the minimum wage may be irrelevant to most Americans, but at least it’s something. And something usually beats nothing.
The current GOP campaign also plays into the Democratic strategy to make every Senate race an ugly brawl between two equally tarnished candidates. Harry Reid’s SuperPac is spending millions of dollars to define GOP challengers as creatures from the black lagoon. Since they’re mostly defending incumbents who are better known, Democrats figure they have the better chance to win a character fight. This is one reason races in Arkansas, North Carolina, Louisiana and Alaska continue to be close.
Especially as Election Day nears and disengaged voters pay attention, Republicans need to show voters what they’re for. This doesn’t have to be another Contract with America, a la Newt Gingrich in 1994. Given intra-GOP differences, the better model might be the Pelosi Democrats in 2006. Despite being dominated by war horses from the Great Society, those Democrats focused on six smallish ideas that united their ranks and didn’t scare moderates unhappy with George W. Bush.
The political point is to focus on a few proposals that address voter concerns and that Republicans could pass and put on Mr. Obama’s desk if they win both houses of Congress. This would give the GOP something positive to talk about, beginning the long process of repairing their public image.
It would also educate their own voters about what is achievable if they do take Congress. The worst outcome would be for Republicans to take the Senate by one or two seats and then fail to deliver anything because their yahoos demand the impossible. That would set up Hillary Clinton to run against the failures of a GOP Congress in 2016, and perhaps deny them a governing majority if a Republican does win back the White House.
We don’t know what the GOP House and Senate campaign committees might agree on, but here are a couple of ideas that would combine GOP principles with populist notes that fit the public mood:
• Pick up former Senator Phil Gramm’s proposal to offer the freedom option in health insurance, letting individuals opt out of ObamaCare’s regulations to buy the policies they want. This would address the concerns of voters who lost the insurance they liked or are paying more. The White House and left would howl, but many Democrats would find it hard to oppose.
• Promise to repeal “too big to fail.” Even Mr. Obama’s regulators recently admitted this policy remains in place when they rejected the “living wills” that banks must propose under Dodd-Frank. This is a populist way to reopen the issue of financial regulation.
• Go beyond Keystone XL by promising to quickly and greatly increase domestic energy production and exports. This would appeal to union voters as a jobs measure, to consumers in potentially lower energy costs, and to Americans concerned about growing turmoil in Europe and the Middle East. U.S. natural gas exports could make our allies less dependent on Gazprom.
This is far from a complete list, but the point is to run a campaign that is about more than attacking Mr. Obama. Most Americans already regret re-electing him. But they are more likely to give Republicans the big majorities they seek if they also sense their lives might be better with a GOP Congress.