The Republican midterm temptation to do nothing

Reuters

Republican David Jolly speaks during a candidate forum with Democrat Alex Sink and Libertarian Lucas Overby, all candidates for Florida's congressional District 13, in Clearwater, Florida, February 25, 2014.

Article Highlights

  • Republicans think they've hit on the perfect strategy to win back the Senate in 2014: Sit back and let it happen.

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  • Everywhere they look, things are going their way. President Barack Obama's job approval is in the low 40s.

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  • So a lot of the party's leaders are turning passivity into a strategy. What they're telling one another is: Don't make yourself an issue.

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Republicans think they've hit on the perfect strategy to win back the Senate in 2014: Sit back and let it happen.

Everywhere they look, things are going their way. President Barack Obama's job approval is in the low 40s. His health-care law is doing a bit worse than that. Many of the Senate elections that will be contested in November are in states that went for John McCain and Mitt Romney in the last two presidential elections. Polls show the party even has a shot in some blue states, such as Michigan, which last elected a Republican senator 20 years ago.

Republican David Jolly won a special House election last week in a Florida district that went for Obama twice. That victory added to Republicans' sense that they have momentum, and it's leading them to think that they've improved their turnout machine since 2012.

So a lot of the party's leaders are turning passivity into a strategy. What they're telling one another is: Don't make yourself an issue. Don't make serious legislative proposals, because they will only be targets for Democrats. If Republicans make sure not to nominate weak or extreme candidates, and simply rail against Obama's health-care law, they will win.

This strategy has ease of execution going for it. Coming up with policy proposals that make sense and will fly politically, and then convincing colleagues to back them, is hard work a lot of Republicans would rather avoid. And inaction might pay off: Republicans probably will make gains if they do nothing, just because it's a midterm election under a Democratic president. Inaction also minimizes risks. Uniting behind some ill-considered policy initiative could indeed weaken the party's momentum.

The flip side of that advantage is that the passive strategy doesn't maximize opportunity. It's true that public confidence in Obama and the Democrats has fallen on a broad range of issues, from health care to foreign policy. But that doesn't mean people have gained confidence that Republicans would do well on those issues. It only means that Republicans have an opening to make their case.

Individual Republican lawmakers have proposed far-reaching reforms of health care, the tax code, higher education and jobs programs. Each of those proposals comes with political risks. But each could also help Republicans position themselves as pragmatic problem-solvers rather than merely Obama-haters. They could finish their case against the administration's agenda by arguing that there's a better way to get the results Americans want.

And sometimes the lack of a proposal is itself a target. That Republicans have never united behind a health-care proposal that would do much to increase the number of people with insurance has been one of the Democrats' top talking points for years now. Sure, they say, Obamacare has its flaws, but the Republicans have no alternative: They would leave millions of people uninsured.

Counting on Democratic unpopularity could also prove too complacent. Take a look at the Huffington Post's poll averages. Obama's net job-approval rating is slightly up since the start of February. His rating on the economy has been improving since early December. He has been rising on foreign policy since late September. While the president is still "upside down," as the operatives say, on all those measures, Republicans would be foolish to assume that the trend is their friend.

And even if Republicans succeed by taking the path of least resistance, they will be storing up future trouble. What if they win the Senate? In that case, Congress will have to move legislation. Republicans will have to come up with attractive conservative bills then, so that Obama will either feel it necessary to sign them or pay a political price for vetoing them. They will be in much better shape if they have campaigned on some of these ideas. That way they can say that the public knew what it would be getting by voting for Republicans. Republicans will also be better able to achieve unity among party congressmen, who will be more likely to feel that they're invested in these ideas as a group.

If Republicans want to govern after 2016, for that matter, they should start preparing now: coming up with an agenda, selling it to the public and refining it as they go.

But those considerations involve thinking past the next elections, and that's not something that comes naturally to a lot of politicians.

(Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg View columnist, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a senior editor at the National Review. Follow him on Twitter at @RameshPonnuru.)

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