House GOP seeks comeback strategy
By: Jake Sherman and Patrick O'Connor
January 29, 2010 04:49 AM EST
Republicans couldn’t ask for a better political environment.
But the momentum from Massachusetts and a meltdown in the Democrats’ agenda haven’t exactly translated to better poll numbers for the GOP.
House Republicans left for their annual retreat in Baltimore on Thursday searching for ways to shed the “party of no” label and convince voters they’re ready to lead.
“Listen, they’re not enamored with us, except that right now they’re ready to take a chance on us because they’ve seen what the other team can produce,” House Minority Leader John Boehner told reporters Thursday before leaving for Baltimore.
Part of the problem is that the Republicans’ 12-year run in the majority is still fresh in voters’ minds.
“In 1994, nobody had any memory of Republicans in power,” said Arizona Rep. Jeff Flake, an outspoken small-government conservative whose crusade against earmarks has put him at odds with party leaders over the years. “Now they do, and it wasn’t pretty. And so we have something to overcome that we really didn’t in 1994.”
A question moving forward is whether Republicans should work with President Barack Obama to look productive or stay unified against him to prevent Democrats from any election-year wins.
Obama addresses the conference Friday afternoon. His first visit with Republicans last year was a cordial affair, but eventually resulted in acrimony after GOP lawmakers unanimously opposed his economic stimulus package. The relationship has proved testy ever since.
In his State of the Union address, Obama told Republicans he wants to work with them and said that he’d like to meet with party leaders more frequently.
The Republican leader isn’t showing much appetite for deal making heading into a critical midterm election. As Boehner told reporters: “I know who I am, I know what my principles are. I know what the principles of my members are, and I’m not going to sacrifice my principles just by sitting down and negotiating.”
But he’s clearly aware that the “party of no” label is casting a cloud over the GOP. According to excerpts of remarks to his colleagues Thursday evening, Boehner said, “Yes, we could conceivably win by simply opposing everything and standing for nothing. But could we govern that way? I think we all know the answer is ‘no.’”
“While it is true majorities typically beat themselves, it is critically important for the minority party to demonstrate that it’s ready with ideas and an agenda to take power,” said Arizona Rep. John Shadegg, another outspoken conservative who recently announced his retirement from the House.
The Republican retreat, then, will offer a flashback to 1994 as the party tries to figure out whether it can create a sort of Contract With America 2.0.
Former Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Majority Leader Dick Armey, who is the nominal head of the tea party movement, will address the gathering. And onetime chief of staff Barry Jackson, who oversaw the Contract, has returned to Boehner’s staff after the sudden death of the minority leader’s top aide.
Boehner has told his rank and file to embrace the so-called tea party movement “because it will be critical as we proceed,” according to excerpts from his remarks.
Boehner’s hands-off style on his conference, however, will make it harder for the party to coalesce around a single set of principles like the Contract With America. This was a problem for the GOP in the health care debate and could prove troublesome on the campaign trail.
There’s no shortage of ideas flowing from Republican ranks right now.
This past week, Rep. Paul Ryan, a popular conservative from Wisconsin, unveiled “A Roadmap for America’s Future,” his vision for where the party should go. The plan would increase access to health care by restructuring the tax code. He also raises the retirement age to protect Social Security and eliminates the estate tax, and taxes on capital gains or dividends. Other members are expected to unveil their own visions.
Republicans understand the optics of retreating to an upscale resort, so they scaled back their retreat this year, choosing a hotel in downtown Baltimore rather than the opulence of The Homestead or The Greenbrier, two sprawling luxury resorts nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains that have been the site of recent getaways.
But The Congressional Institute, whose board is composed of influential lobbyists, still picks up most of the tab for the three-day retreat, giving Democrats a chance to reprise the “Culture of Corruption” label that plagued Republicans in 2006 during their grueling yearlong descent from power.
“While hardworking Americans are struggling to make ends meet, House Republicans are at a resort plotting strategy behind closed doors with lobbyists who picked up the tab,” said Ryan Rudominer, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokesman.
Republicans still contend they have the populist surge on their side in this election cycle.
“I personally believe the American people are deeply offended with the way Washington does business,” Shadegg said. “They want to know that we get it; the Congress should not self-deal. Agreements that get a member’s vote by getting him something may not be bribery, but it doesn’t look good. If we send that message, I think the American people will say, ‘Maybe they are ready to govern.’”