Republicans are giddy, and for good reason. Despite the fact that they have in no way earned the tremendous momentum they now enjoy, they've been given an opportunity to undo the mistakes of the Bush years. One has to assume that they'll mess things up somehow, but they'll have plenty of help from a White House that seems increasingly out of touch. To build on recent victories, Republicans need to do what the Democrats seem unwilling or incapable of doing, and that is to dramatically change their approach.
During his clever and pugnacious State of the Union address, the president presented himself as an outsider outraged by bank bailouts and the corrupting culture of Washington, D.C. As the heroic underdog from Chicago's South Side who took on the Clinton machine and won, you can see how this stance will resonate with Obama's left-of-center base. His references to American values that transcend partisan divisions, meanwhile, were a nod to his reputation as a thoughtful, post-ideological pragmatist.
Republicans are now in a position to offer more cost-effective, scalpel-like proposals of their own that can demonstrate their readiness to govern.
Yet significantly, the president seemed incapable of acknowledging any errors in judgment, a strikingly Bush-like departure from post-ideological pragmatism. His only regret about the last year was that he failed to explain his health reform proposal clearly enough, as though opposition would evaporate if only the public properly understood its many virtues. The trouble, of course, is that plenty of critics on the left and the right really did understand the Senate health bill, and they didn't like it. Some were troubled by its concessions to private health insurers. Other didn't like its lack of tough cost controls. Then there were those who were enraged by the fact that states like New York and Massachusetts were punished for expanding coverage over the past decade while states like Nevada were rewarded for being represented by Senator Ben Nelson. Whether the White House acknowledges it or not, it seems clear that the health reform will have to shrink to survive. And this is where Republicans can have a huge impact.
• Benjamin Sarlin: Buck Up, Democrats• Richard Wolffe: Obama’s Plan to Split the GOPDavid Axelrod, the president's chief political strategist, intends to spend the next few months shining a light on Republican obstructionism. Commenting on Republican efforts to block the Democratic legislative agenda last year, he recently said, "they made a decision they were going to sit it out and hope that we failed—that the country failed." But of course Republicans see things differently. Far from wanting the country to fail, they believe that the president's health reform and cap-and-trade proposals represent a serious threat to America's economic future. So what looks like cynical politicking to Axelrod is in fact a sincere attempt to forestall what they see as expensive and most likely irreversible policy disasters, not unlike the similarly sincere effort by the small and gutsy minority of congressional Democrats who opposed the invasion of Iraq.
Even so, Axelrod has a point. With the election of Scott Brown as the 41st Republican senator, the congressional GOP is no longer powerless. The smart move, as Newt Gingrich recently suggested, is for Republicans to declare victory—Brown's election essentially killed the Reid bill—and then get behind legislation that will deliver better tangible outcomes for Americans. One approach, backed by Yuval Levin and James Capretta in The Weekly Standard, would expand state-based high risk pools dedicated to helping individuals with preexisting conditions, promote malpractice reform, and give the states the freedom and flexibility they need to craft health reform proposals that meet local needs. Chances are that this won't be enough for congressional Democrats, who also want to expand Medicaid. The only problem is that expanding Medicaid without reforming its complicated structure as a program shared between the states and the federal government might exacerbate cost growth. One straightforward solution is to create two separate bills, including a more modest package designed to attract a large number of Republican votes. By going in this direction, Republicans will demonstrate their good faith and contribute to improving a health system that everyone acknowledges is badly broken.
On the jobs front, Republicans would be wise to get behind the Schumer-Hatch plan for offering payroll tax relief to private sector firms that hire workers who've been unemployed for 60 days or longer. The fact that Orrin Hatch, the conservative senator from Utah, is a co-sponsor should serve as a seal of approval for reluctant Republicans. Conservatives have been clamoring for payroll tax relief since the start of the recession. Stanford economist Michael Boskin, a leading right-of-center wonk, has argued that cutting the payroll tax by six percentage points in lieu of passing the president's Recovery Act would have increased employment by three to four million jobs while costing the Treasury only half as much. Last fall, he proposed shifting resources from the stimulus to partial payroll tax relief. Though that option might be off the table, Schumer-Hatch is a decent intermediate step that Republicans can and should get behind.
The other major issue where Republicans might be able to tug the Democratic majority in a better direction is financial sector reform. A number of economists from across the political spectrum have grown more sympathetic to curbing the use of deposit insurance, an approach that would help reduce systemic risk without micromanaging the size and activities of financial institutions. Many details need to be worked out, but it sounds like a smart center-right alternative to endless bailouts.
The beauty of this strategy is that it allows Republican candidates to do well by doing good. The Democrats have offered a series of bloated, heavy-handed bills to tackle real problems facing the economy, and Republicans have been right to take them to task. But they're now in a position to offer more cost-effective, scalpel-like proposals of their own that can demonstrate their readiness to govern. And besides, Republicans will still be well within their rights to criticize the Democrats for their major missteps in 2009—President Obama spent most of his 2008 presidential campaign running against George W. Bush's first term. If Republicans choose not to pivot, if they instead continue to rely exclusively on scorched-earth opposition, they'll find that victories in 2010 won't translate into victories in 2012, when the electorate will be larger and more inclined to elect problem-solvers and not bomb-throwers.
Reihan Salam is a fellow at the New America Foundation and the co-author of Grand New Party.