Although it was not a straight party-line vote, the defeat of the gun background-check provision was a big loss for the president and Democrats more generally. On an issue not of their choosing, Republicans managed to pull out a big win. Whether you agree with the outcome or not, the political performance was unexpectedly deft. The question is whether this can be applied in other contexts.
The takeaways from this episode are not unique to this contretemps with the president, but they were certainly more vivid than they have ever been. The president commands little loyalty in Congress and generates enormous antipathy. His model for governing — demonize the other side, campaign around the country, get the media in a tizzy — is remarkably ineffective.
And most important, it matters what is in legislation and whether there is an alternative offered by the GOP. In the gun debate, the president was arguing for something that wouldn’t have prevented Newtown or really addressed the nexus of mentally ill loners committing mass murder. Republicans made that point over and over again, both because it was true and because it undermined the president’s moral preening. Rather than argue the abstract ideology (Second Amendment), they argued from the perspective of practicality (it won’t work.) In addition, it is critical to have alternatives such as the Grassley-Cruz bill, which allow Republicans to be problem solvers without accepting the left’s solution. And lastly, by making the Senate go first, Republicans can split the Democratic Party, simultaneously making life difficult for red-state Democrats, showing the president’s weakness and insulating the GOP House from the “obstructionist” label.
Where else can these lessons be applied? Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) thinks it will work on immigration — using border security and hurdles to citizenship as a way to break off Democrats and win on conservative terms. Specific bills on repeal of the medical-device tax (not simply a show vote), delay of Obamacare implementation and energy development are all issues around which conservatives rally and which present difficult votes for Democrats. On Obamacare, I have argued, a GOP alternative is necessary to present voters with a concrete alternative to the “train wreck.” The GOP can certainly frame its positions as favoring economic growth and job creation (especially by lifting the heavy weight of Obamacare).
Likewise on the budget, why not put out some limited deals: Close a few tax loopholes to repeal the medical-device tax or to restore defense spending. (Suddenly voters are reminded how critical is our funding for national security.) Rather than block-granting Medicaid, give states waivers on a liberal basis (as President Obama wanted to do on the work requirement for welfare) or cut off Medicare subsidies for millionaires. Let Democrats vote against these common-sense positions.
Politics is about getting your guys and girls elected and passing your agenda. But it is also about making the other side take a painful defeat. There are lots of these opportunities for Republicans on issues on which they also have the upper hand on the policy arguments. It’s time they start figuring out the next few moves; they could be critical to holding the line on the Obama agenda and to winning back the Senate.