It is an old rule of politics. When your opponent is in the process of destroying himself, don’t get in his way. Despite tanking poll numbers both for themselves and their president, congressional Democrats have persisted for months in a stunning act of political self-destruction. The evaporation of home-state support for Nebraska Sen. Ben Nelson and the retirements of Christopher Dodd and Byron Dorgan should give the White House and the congressional majority pause, but to date they haven’t.
So should Republicans repair to the sidelines and watch the minions of Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi strut over the cliff?
Not a chance.
Taking back the House and perhaps the Senate in 2010—not just doing well—will require winning back trust lost between 2000 and 2006. Here are the top 10 things the GOP must do in 2010:
10. Face up to why the party lost in 2006 and 2008. Pollster Kellyanne Conway reported in mid-2005 that her polls had detected rising disaffection among a group of 2004 GOP voters. Defined by attitudes rather than demographics, their problem wasn’t with Iraq, as the media imagined, but with the increase in federal domestic spending and deficits.
According to one veteran of the GOP leadership speaking on background this fall, the party’s 2008 exit poll showed that these swing voters anticipated a left-leaning Obama presidency but wanted to teach the GOP a lesson. Last year’s collapse of support for the liberal Republican candidate in New York’s 23rd congressional district in favor of the Conservative Party nominee reflected the continuing disgust of former Republican loyalists.
9. Don’t lose sight of why support for Democrats is tanking. What spending-sensitive voters didn’t anticipate were trillion dollar bank and auto bailouts, trillion dollar deficits, a trillion dollar health-care overhaul, and a trillion dollar stimulus bill. When he traded his health-care vote for Nebraska Medicaid funding, Sen. Nelson made himself the emblem of what these voters abhor in Washington.
8. Face the fact that many swing voters who want Democrats out of power don’t particularly want Republicans in. Whatever their declared party affiliation, these voters are anti-establishment. Party is secondary to them. They are not yet convinced that, if returned to power, the GOP will deliver the cheaper, more limited government it has long promised.
7. Fight for spending cuts now. The congressional GOP’s nearly united front against the stimulus bill and complete unity against the health-care overhaul were good initial steps. More is needed. The GOP should resist increases in domestic spending on every parliamentary front. Great gestures matter. As part of this resistance, Republicans should renounce earmarks. They shouldn’t wait for Democrats to go along. The House and Senate GOP caucuses should walk away from earmarks, leaving Democrats alone to defend this symbol of D.C.’s degeneracy.
6. For the midterm election, unite around a clear agenda of repeal. The party should give its candidates a list of programs and spending that will be up for cancellation the hour a Republican Congress is sworn in. At the top of the list should be the Troubled Asset Relief Program, unspent stimulus funds, and the health-care overhaul.
5. Add in an agenda of market-freeing reforms in health care, energy, environmental and education policy. Scholarly centers such as the Hoover Institution, the Pacific Research Institute, and the Manhattan Institute have developed market-freeing solutions to health inflation, energy dependence, real and immediate environmental challenges, and education quality. Reform for congressional Democrats means more spending and more mandates. After the health-care debate the nation has rejected that 1930s-style model. The new model’s time has come.
4. Add to that a serious plan for moving to a surplus and reducing federal debt. In the past, critics of overspending have focused on minutiae, studies of the mating habits of insects and the like. Their critics have rightly noted that the government can’t get to a balanced budget that way. So what will it take? Lay it out.
3. Start talking about the need to reform Social Security and Medicare. Swing voters know these programs could devastate federal finances. They want assurance that politicians know this, too, and are committed to fixing them. Talk of reforming these programs is no longer the third rail of politics. It will win the swing voters’ respect.
2. Tax cuts must be part of the answer. The surpluses of the late ’90s were to a significant extent a product of the growth in revenues that came after the capital gains tax was cut. The Democrats’ theology—actually economic superstition—prohibits them from renewing the 2003 tax cuts, the looming expiration of which has been a drag on the economy ever since they recaptured Congress. Campaign for immediate renewal—and even greater cuts in the capital gains tax. Start talking about a flat tax as the next step.
1. Take a lesson from Ronald Reagan and emphasize that your programs are based on consistent principles leading to a hopeful future for all Americans. Reclaim the party’s franchise for economic growth, entrepreneurship, personal liberty, and spending restraint. This is the route to a big victory in November—and a true service to the nation.