Congressional Republicans are currently defined as nothing more than opponents of the president and friends of the powerful. This isn’t my opinion — it’s America’s opinion. My polling firm asked voters nationwide on election night to identify who or what the GOP was fighting for. Twice as many said “the wealthy” and “big business” than “hardworking taxpayers” or “small business.”
Their image is even worse today. The congressional Republicans’ message during the “fiscal cliff” debate last month was confused and chaotic. The debt-ceiling vote next month and the budget debate after that promise more of the same — unless House and Senate Republicans stop bickering and start coordinating and talking differently.
Just saying “no” to the president has its limits. House Republicans, since they have a megaphone that Senate Republicans don’t
, will continue to be diminished
until they start defining and stop being defined.
Talk is cheap, of course, but bad language is costly. While the new GOP House majority is the second-largest since World War II, more people cast votes for Democratic House candidates than for Republican candidates. On the Senate side, the Democratic advantage was even larger. The GOP paid a price for its out-of-touch language in November and could pay again in 2014, just as it did in 2006, unless the party changes course.
Changing course starts with a values-based approach, and that means talking to Americans about accountability, personal responsibility and freedom — and linking those values to GOP policies. For example, in 1994, congressional Republican candidates developed the Contract With America to announce “a detailed agenda for national renewal, a written commitment with no fine print . . . to make us all proud again of the way free people govern themselves.”
It was a response to voters who were fed up with politicians who said one thing in their districts and then voted differently in Washington. In 2013, House Republicans need a similar tone that starts with the value of listening, not speaking. When people feel they’re heard and understood, they’ll listen.
The next step is to be more empathetic. Voters will not give you a chance to solve their problems if they think you don’t understand them, especially at a time when Americans feel no one is fighting for them. For example, among 2012 voters who wanted their president to “care about people like me,” President Obama crushed Mitt Romney 81 percent to 18 percent. In part, that’s because the president’s rhetoric is always couched in the language of fairness and justice. He asks the “wealthiest 2 percent” to “pay their fair share” — without defining what “fair share” means. He doesn’t have to; voters ascribe their own definitions.