Ed Gillespie is a communications strategist and chairman of the Republican State Leadership Committee. He was a counselor to President George W. Bush, and he chaired the Republican National Committee from 2003 to 2004.
The latest round of the budget and debt-ceiling fight went decidedly to the Democrats. While there’s a certain “pox on both their houses” aspect to the fallout from the government shutdown, Republicans clearly absorbed a bigger hit in public opinion. And the episode bitterly divided established conservatives and the tea party wing of the GOP.
To repair the rift and the party’s standing with voters, and to be better positioned for the next round in early 2014, congressional Republicans should look to the states. Republican governors and state legislators have figured out how to talk in terms of benefits instead of process, and that positive rhetoric is more appealing than negative. These state Republicans are enjoying remarkable approval ratings, and they’re getting things done.
Eight of the 10 best states for expected job growth listed by Forbes magazine last month and nine of the 10 best states for business named by CNBC this summer have Republican governors.
And it’s no coincidence that so much of the country’s natural gas boom is taking place in states with Republican governors and Republican-majority legislatures (Texas, Pennsylvania, Ohio) that know how to protect the environment and property rights while unleashing a transformative source of abundant domestic energy.
Those state successes seem far removed from the logjam in Washington. But there’s no reason Washington can’t learn from them.
I worked on Capitol Hill during the confrontations between House Speaker Newt Gingrich and President Bill Clinton. And I served in the White House during the confrontations between President George W. Bush and Speaker Nancy Pelosi. So I understand what happens, at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, when one party has control of Congress and the other the presidency.
House and Senate Republicans are nearly always in the position of talking about what they’re against — what they want to block or repeal or defund. Those are process arguments. And they tend to be negative.
Like many conservatives, I often feel angry and frustrated that more Americans aren’t more angry and frustrated. But while expressing anger and frustration resonates with core voters who already agree with us, it doesn’t do much for independents who are worried about themselves and their families, and pessimistic about the country’s future. They want to hear optimism. They want to hear how political leaders will improve their lives.
Congressional Republicans are absolutely right to oppose President Obama’s harmful policies. But they’d be better off if they spent less time talking about process and more time speaking in positive and tangible terms about what they support and how they’ll help — as state Republican leaders do.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker
recently put it this way: “We talk in terms that are more relevant. Give you a good example: sequesters. Most people, that goes right over their head. Debt ceilings, fiscal cliffs. We talk about making our kids’ schools better. We talk about balancing our budgets so we can live within our means. We talk about helping our neighbor get a job again.”