Upstaged on Their Own Turf

Upstaged on Their Own Turf

By Ruben Navarrette - February 3, 2010

SAN DIEGO -- President Obama's give-and-take with House Republicans at the GOP retreat in Baltimore was refreshing, interesting and informative.

Yet, for me, the whole exercise was surreal. I disagree with much of Obama's agenda since it is right out of the playbook of old-school liberalism, where politicians seek to take power over large portions of society in order to exert control over people's lives. At the same time, I normally find a lot to be impressed with in the younger crop of GOP stars, including Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia and Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana -- second and third in command in the House Republican leadership, respectively.

During an interview with Pence before the retreat, I asked him to spell out his views on some of the issues facing the country. His answers were clear, concise and thoughtful.

On health care: "Republicans continue to be on the side of the American people whether it be in our opposition to the so-called public option or government-run insurance, whether it be our support for clear prohibitions on funding of elective abortions in government-run insurance plans. We lost the vote in the House but I think we won the argument."

On jobs: "The fact that the administration held a jobs summit nearly a year after enactment of its economic stimulus bill was a tacit admission that its economic policies have failed. ... We ought to go in a completely different direction -- fiscal discipline in Washington, D.C., and immediate tax relief for working families, small businesses and family farms."

On immigration: "We need a commitment to border integrity. We also need a commitment to an orderly guest-worker system. We can work our way through this problem in a way that is consistent with our law and with our values."

And on education: "I truly believe that the role of the federal government in public education ought to be resources, not red tape. Education is, and by definition ought to be, a state and local function. And the cure for what ails education in this country is to give all parents the ability -- K to 12 -- to choose what school their children attend."

All good responses. Pence obviously has smarts and the ability to communicate. The same can be said for several of his fellow GOP wunderkinds in the House.

And yet, here's the surreal part: During the GOP retreat, Obama came off much better than his Republican critics. The president fielded one question after another and showed vast knowledge of issues, politics and policies. When challenged, he didn't fold but actually seemed to improve his game.

Meanwhile, House Republicans did ask some legitimate questions -- about cutting taxes, trimming spending and improving health care reform. But where they lost focus was when they started to complain about how no one was listening to their ideas. At that point, they showed that they could whine as loudly as Democrats did when George W. Bush was president. For eight years, Obama's party never grasped the concept that elections have consequences and that the victors set the agenda. Senate Democrats would give Bush lists of individuals that they could support for federal judgeships. Then Bush would nominate whomever he wanted all along.

Now the roles have reversed and it is Republicans who can't get it through their heads that they don't call the shots. And while it might have been wrong for Democrats to taunt the Republicans as the party of no, it is fair to say that many of the ideas being proposed by House Republicans are leftovers from the economic policies of the Reagan administration more than two decades ago. Maybe Democrats should have said that the GOP doesn't have any new ideas. Besides, there was indeed a presidential election in 2008, and Republicans' ideas and policies were put on the table -- and rejected by the voters. Republicans need to accept this and show a little humility.

As for Obama, he should push to have one of these exchanges once a month. But will Republicans agree? Some of them might have been anxious to lock horns with the president the first time. Now, if they're smart, they won't be so eager to do it again.

Copyright 2010, Washington Post Writers Group

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