The first rule of politics is that the game never ends. No matter what the result, there is always another round. No issue ever goes away for good and every two years there is another election.
The results from this week’s elections are disappointing for Republicans. But they should not be too disheartening. It is one thing to lose because the other side is inherently better than you. That leaves no hope. It is another to lose because of bad strategy and execution. The latter raises the possibility that reasonable adjustments will produce a better outcome.
It will probably be a long time before Republicans face terrain as promising as the last election offered. They faced an inexperienced President overwhelmed by a struggling economy whose signature achievement remains disliked by a persistent majority of voters. The public trusted the GOP more than the Democrats on its number one issue: jobs and the economy. A large number of Democratic Senate seats were up for election, many of them vacant, held by weak incumbents, or in Republican-leaning states. Yet the party lost not only the presidency, but also in the Senate. Why? Largely because it fielded a field of surprisingly weak candidates whose main message failed to address the issue on which the party was strongest: jobs and the economy.
In the four national elections going back to 2006, Republicans could have ended up with control of the Senate in three of them. In 2006, conservatives made Sen. (now Governor) Chafee go through a grueling and ultimately pointless primary which hurt his approval ratings and depleted his campaign funds going into the general election. Had he faced an easier time, Chaffee would likely have won reelection, making him the 50th Republican Senator and allowing Vice President Cheney to cast the deciding vote in any Senate ties. In 2010, Republicans lost races to weak opponents in Connecticut, Delaware, Nevada and Colorado. The main reason was that they put up weaker, and in some cases silly, candidates themselves. Victories in these four states would have given them a 51-vote majority. Finally, on last Tuesday the weak Senate candidates are too numerous to mention. Suffice it to say that none of the Republicans who lost, with the exception of Scott Brown, came close to the quality of Marc Rubio.
Add to this the fact that the party had no message that could excite the pubic or give voters a reason for supporting an otherwise weak candidate. Throughout the Obama Administration, the Republican position has been one of unresponsive opposition. While we acknowledge that health care, financial reform, environmental and energy challenges, and immigration are all important problems, try to find out what we would do about them. Even on the economy, the details of a sensible path to tax and entitlement reform and fiscal balance are nowhere to be found. This can work when the other side obviously overreaches as it did on health care. But Obama is unlikely to make that mistake again.
Republicans should take the offensive on issues. We tend to be trusted more on fiscal issues and, thanks to decades of Democratic policies, fiscal issues are likely to become more pressing over time, not less. Although public support for entitlement reform remains weak, the pressure for spending cuts is only going to intensify in the coming years. In return for getting higher taxes from the rich, Democrats have effectively ruled out higher income rates for the majority of Americans. The only alternative is deep spending cuts.
So what should we do? In short, get over the election and help Obama become the president he always dreamed of becoming. Right now, Obama wants a legacy. Republicans should give it to him, with conditions. In the face of Republican opposition Obama can maybe get one or two more major bills, provided his attention is not torn away by events in Europe, the Middle East or China and provided the economy continues to slowly improve. So maybe immigration reform and a band-aid on the fiscal problems. In the meantime, he will need to revisit health care and financial reform in order to deal with a number of implementation problems. Tax reform, entitlement reform, or energy/global warming? Forget it.
But with Republican leadership Obama could get all of these, making him one of the most effective Presidents in history. Like Clinton, he would get the credit while Republicans would likely get the next few elections. It’s a fair deal. All he has to do is roll the Democrats.
Republicans would have to accept a number of things they would rather not: the rich will pay higher taxes, most illegal immigrants will eventually become citizens, we will implement a carbon tax, and fiscal policy will become more progressive. In return, we should insist on certain things that are more important. These include:
- In fiscal reform – true entitlement reform that sets Medicare and Social Security on a sustainable paths and reduces future spending in each.
- In tax reform – lower corporate marginal rates, the end of the territorial system, fewer tax expenditures, and limiting the higher individual rates to 10 years.
- In health reform – introducing greater patient choice and giving states more control over Medicaid.
- In immigration reform – making future policy more merit-based, increasing the number of legal immigrants going forward, and tightening hiring requirements to ensure that the new bill does not result in another wave of illegal immigrants establishing themselves for eventual citizenship.
- In financial reform – an end to the government’s implicit guarantee of the nation’s largest banks and a simplification of Dodd-Frank. Here the recommendations of Pew’s Financial Reform Task Force provide good guidance.
Taking the offensive on these issues will re-energize the party and isolate hardliners on both sides of the aisle. Combined with good candidate selection and grooming, it should result in Republican victories in the 2014 elections and beyond.