THE AGENDA

What the GOP Will Do If It Wins Congress

If Republicans win the Senate—and they probably will—then they’ll have to quickly prove they have the guts to govern. This is how they can do that.

On Wednesday afternoon, President Obama declared, "I am not on the ballot this fall. Michele’s pretty happy about that. But make no mistake: These policies are on the ballot. Every single one of them.”

The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza called it “28 words that Democrats really wish President Obama didn’t say.”

Why? The assumption is that President Obama is a drain on Democrats desperate to survive his unpopular numbers in key states. Democrats have been anxious not to nationalize the election as a referendum on President Obama. Every Democratic candidate is trying to run, in essence, as an independent. Will it work?

A month out from the mid-term elections and no one knows who will control the Senate in January 2015. All models favor Republicans to varying degrees, but the world changes fast. Who would have thought a couple of months ago that beheading would be a hot topic of discussion in this cycle?

My guess—and it’s just that—is that either Democrats manage to hold onto the Senate or most of these close races break Republican. For my money, Colorado is the real litmus test. It’s been a tough state for Republicans of late and I’d bet that if Cory Gardner beats Udall, the incumbent Democrat, then we’ll see Iowa, Alaska, Kentucky, North Carolina, Georgia, Louisiana all going Republican—plus one “surprise,” most likely New Hampshire.

If that happens, it will obviously mean this will be considered a major “wave” election. If so, it will be unusual for lack of an obvious unifying national agenda, other than the President’s unpopularity. The most dramatic wave cycles have featured an obvious thematic, like the 1994 “Contract for America,” the 2002 war on terror, or the 2010 reaction to Obamacare.

Two of those also had a leader pushing the agenda. In 1994, Newt Gingrich was relatively unknown, with six out of ten voters having no opinion of him, which gave him the appeal of the most powerful word in American advertising: new. In 2002, President Bush spent the last three weeks of the election campaigning in almost every key state.

In 2010, Republicans gained 63 House seats and seven Senate seats—the largest number of seats changing parties since 1948—but interestingly it lacked a prominent figure articulating a change message. Instead there was the emergence of a Tea Party movement that brought many traditionally low-propensity voters to the polls.

If this year turns out to be a wave, it will seem to lack both a leader and a unifying agenda. This may be an argument for precisely why it won’t be a wave, or it could be that dissatisfaction on multiple levels combined with President Obama’s low favorables are serving to unify and motivate support for Republicans. It appears that no Democratic candidate in any of the key Senate seats will campaign with President Obama, which is pretty astonishing given that two years ago he won by over 5 million votes.

But if Republicans do control Congress, it’s essential they seize the moment and present a governing agenda or it surely will lead to disaster in 2016. As is often noted this year, each of these Senate races is different, but there’s no reason to believe that agreement on a body of legislation couldn’t be crafted. As with a new president, there will likely be a short window of goodwill in which to act.

So what could that governing agenda look like?

First, it’s essential that an alternative to Obamacare be passed. This will accomplish two goals: it will end discussion that Republicans don’t have an alternative and it will force the President and Democrats into defending a program that still is unpopular. As is often noted by Obamacare supporters, more voters support changing Obamacare than repealing it. A new Republican Congress needs to prove that’s a false choice by passing a health care reform bill that has the most popular elements of Obamacare, like a ban on pre-existing conditions and no cap on lifetime benefits. The plan unveiled last January by Hatch, Coburn and Burr is a good foundation.

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President Obama has vetoed only two bills, a record low. President G.W. Bush vetoed 12, Bill Clinton 27, George H.W, Bush 44, Ronald Reagan 78. Clearly he would veto an alternative to Obamacare, but who’s to say he would keep unified Democrat support when there was an alternative that, if crafted properly, could appear more popular? In any event, it would change the nature of the discussion from the president accusing Congress of doing nothing, to defending his legislation. That shift in the dynamic is essential to give Republicans a positive voice in the debate on solutions.

Next, the passage of a comprehensive jobs bill is essential for Republicans. Senator Rob Portman of Ohio has put together a plan that would serve well as a blueprint. It’s not a bill but a statement of goals with some specifics that could gain support from Democrats as well as Republicans.

In 2009, the Stimulus Bill was the newly elected President Obama’s answer to the job crisis. Six years later, there are still a million-plus fewer full-time jobs, household income continues to decline and poverty has increased dramatically. Supporters of the president argue these trends are inevitable and the Stimulus made a terrible situation better. We can argue that but at this point it doesn’t matter. What’s key is that a Republican Congress respond with a sweeping alternative.

Passing a new jobs bill will signal that Republicans don’t buy the White House happy talk that Americans are doing well economically. Most Americans aren’t, and the president and his supporters alienate themselves when they insist people are too dumb to realize how they are better off now than they were five years ago.

Speaker John Boehner addressed this in an underreported but excellent speech at the American Enterprise Institute on September 19. He described the situation bluntly: “Flat wages, higher prices, a six-year slog to regain the jobs that were lost during the recessions, and millions continue to ask the question: Where are the jobs?”

Republicans will also have to find time fore foreign policy and, as Hugh Hewitt noted in his call for action by a Republican Congress, a new Defense Appropriation Bill should be part of a new agenda. We’re at war and no one is credibly making the case that the Obama scheduled defense reductions should continue. Let Democrats oppose, if they so choose, and the president veto. But I suspect that a compromise would be reached and it would pass.

Then there’s immigration and border security. This is the toughest item from a political standpoint, and the one I’d address after an Obamacare alternative, jobs bill and defense authorization, if only because of its likelihood to split Republicans and stall. If Republicans can work together and prove they can provide alternatives to key issues, they will both gain internal confidence and build national goodwill. These will be essential to dealing with this incredibly divisive issue.

If nothing else, we’ve learned that addressing border security is an essential first step to any immigration solution. It will be impossible to pass any version of immigration reform without addressing the border issue.

But beyond all this, Republicans need to prove two points: that they are on the side of the vast majority of Americans who have been left behind in the Obama “recovery” and that they are capable of serving as a governing party. That may seem simple, and it is, but it won’t be easy. But there’s an historic opportunity to prove that good policy is good politics.

The stakes couldn’t be higher. If Republicans do control Congress and fall into stagnation or, worse, internal bickering with members playing to segments of the party rather than a unifying dynamic, it will all but guarantee the election of another Democratic president in 2016. If you are given a chance to govern and fail, it’s hard to argue you deserve more power. That’s the problem President Obama faces today. If Republicans blow it, it will quickly become their problem.