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By Jay Cost

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Should The GOP Be The Party of No?

Over at Politico, Charles Mathesian and Patrick O'Connor don't exactly answer the title question, but they offer an extended meditation on it.

After near-unanimous Republican congressional opposition to President Barack Obama's stimulus package and a week dominated by headlines of GOP governors poised to reject stimulus funding, House Republicans followed up with another resounding "no" on the $410 billion omnibus spending package Wednesday.

This time, though, 16 members broke from the party line on a vote Minority Whip Eric Cantor had urged his colleagues to reject. And the cracks in the facade appear to be the first public signal of Republican rank-and-file squeamishness with a remarkably high-risk strategy that promises an uncertain return.

For Republicans, a central question looms: Is saying no to Obama's agenda the way to get voters to say yes to an already beleaguered GOP brand?

I'm not sure how they infer that 16 defections is a sign of "squeamishness" with the party's "remarkably high-risk strategy." This seems more like a literary device to push the thesis of the story, but let's finish their summary of the Republican situation.

Despite two consecutive election thrashings, and despite Obama's high approval ratings and their own low standing, Republicans have wagered that the return to the majority is paved by unwavering opposition to further spending, an audacious bet that won't pay out for another 21 months.

If Republicans are right, the economy will remain in tatters and voters will recognize in 2010 that the recovery was delayed by profligate Democrats and their president.

If the GOP is wrong, however, and the economy begins to show signs of life, the resistance will be easily framed as reflexive obstructionism, the last gasp of an intellectually bankrupt party.

There are a couple points I'd like to make. Mathesian and O'Connor are discussing an interesting subject - what's a party in the minority to do - but they overlook the core dilemma the Republicans face.

First of all, they have not framed the topic appropriately. While it is true that the party leadership has some influence over members of Congress - the authors implicitly overstate the power of the congressional party leadership. Ultimately, members are concerned with their own reelection before they are concerned with winning a majority. They have to be. If the party wins a majority next Congress, but they are defeated, what good does the majority do them?

So, when we are looking at these kinds of votes, we need to place the individual legislator at the forefront. I'd suggest that unanimity in the Republican caucus does not necessarily imply partisan coercion or servile adherence to the leadership's strategy. We can explain these no votes based on the individual incentives of Republican legislators. Consider:

(1) This House Republican caucus is about 50 members smaller than it was in the 109th. This means that its members are, on average, in safer districts. They can oppose Democratic-sponsored measures without as much fear of political payback. Indeed, supporting them might get these members in more trouble.

(2) If the economy improves, will individual legislators be seen as "reflexive obstructionists?" I'm not sure. Again, these members are in some of the most Republican places in the country. But, more than that, they have not really obstructed anything - the legislative measures are still going through.

(3) Additionally, it's easy for individual legislators to claim credit for good times. Few people understand how the House really works, which makes it easy to take responsibility for the good and shirk it for the bad. This is one reason popular Presidents do not to make major gains in midterm elections. When times are good, people have a "status quo" sentiment - and everybody in office can benefit from that.

(4) Suppose that some members are indeed voting based on a bet about the economy. That bet is going to be made in part on whether they think these bills are going to do much good. Republican partisans tend not to think that they will. We should expect Republicans legislators to think similarly - and thus be inclined to vote nay.

Let's turn to a discussion of what's good for the GOP as a whole. What should they be doing? Mathesian and O'Connor suggest that voting no is not necessarily the optimal strategy because it might make them seem "reflexively obstructionist." I would argue that voting no is the optimal strategy, but that does not mean it is a particularly good one. Instead, it's the best among a set of lousy options Republicans have.

I have written before on this site of the value of distinct party labels. I think that is what the GOP needs to develop. The only way the Republicans return to power is if the public becomes dissatisfied with Democrats and sees the Republicans as offering a satisfactory alternative. The assumption there is that the public has a clear view of where both parties stand - in other words, distinct party identities. They're not a sufficient condition of a Republican return, but I'd suggest they are a necessary condition.

These labels are maintained via a two step process: (a) pretty much everybody on one side agrees with each other and (b) disagrees with pretty much everybody on the other side. This is what congressional Republicans are doing with these no votes. They are generating clear distinctions with the other side.

The problem is that they are doing this by voting no. Why can't they do it by voting yes? Well, if the voted yes - they wouldn't be distinguishing themselves from Democrats!

This is the biggest reason why the minority is such a lousy place to be: you have no control over the agenda. This is the case for the House, where Nancy Pelosi and Democratic committee chairs are in charge of what get's voted on and what doesn't. It's also the case for the national debate. The stimulus bill was a case in point. House Republicans shocked pretty much everybody by voting unanimously in the negative. Suddenly, the national "agenda" shifted to talk about what was wrong the bill. What happened next? The President went on the road to pitch the necessity of the bill, then he held a primetime press conference to pitch the necessity of the bill, and the national agenda shifted to talk about why the bill was so necessary. That's the bully pulpit at work.

This is what happens when you're a unified minority facing a unified majority. You're left voting no - and journalists like Mathesian and O'Connor suggest that you look reflexively obstructionist. It stinks, but it is still the best option available. Republicans are not going to get back to power by being indistinguishable from the party in power. "An echo, not a choice" is a losing strategy.

More broadly, the party needs to find a way to inject its affirmative ideas into the national discussion. According to Byron York, Republican leaders recognize the need for this:

"You're seeing a major doctrinal shift in how Republicans are going to focus all these debates," the strategist told me [York]. "The key is to focus on winning the issue as opposed to winning the political moment. If you win the issue, people will think you are ready to govern."

I asked him to elaborate a little. "With the political moment, it's how can you find the one thing that gives you the momentary upper hand in terms of the coverage for the next six hours -- as opposed to engaging the electorate in creating a structural change in their opinion on which party is better able to handle an issue."

This is easier said than done. A President with an approval rating in the 60s can suck the oxygen out of the room pretty quickly, and that's what happened with the GOP's alternative stimulus plan. Nevertheless, that does not mean Republicans should not try to inject their ideas. Even if they fail more often than they succeed - and so long as the President is this popular, they will - at least they will be ready for when opportunities present themselves.

This, I'd suggest, is the core dilemma that faces the Republican Party, just as it does any party in the minority: they do not control the political agenda in any way, shape, manner or form. This is how President Obama and Speaker Pelosi can make them appear to be the party of nothing but no, even if they actually do have affirmative ideas. Facing a unified Democratic Party with a popular president and large majorities in government - Republicans are shut out, and not just of crafting legislation. They're also effectively shut out of the public discussion. All they can do is vote on Democratic bills - and wait patiently for the right moment to assert themselves again.

-Jay Cost