GOP Struggles To Define Its Message for 2006 Elections

By Dan Balz and Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, March 20, 2006

Republican efforts to craft a policy and political agenda to carry the party into the midterm elections have stumbled repeatedly as GOP leaders face widespread disaffection and disagreement within the ranks.

Anxiety over President Bush's Iraq policy, internal clashes over such divisive issues as immigration, and rising complaints that the party has abandoned conservative principles on spending restraint have all hobbled the effort to devise an election-year message, said several lawmakers involved in the effort.

While it is a Republican refrain that Democrats criticize Bush but have no positive vision, for now the governing party also has no national platform around which lawmakers are prepared to rally.

Every effort so far to produce such a platform has stumbled.

In January, Bush laid out a modest menu of ideas on health care and energy independence, but Congress has made little movement on them. Senior White House officials consulted with lawmakers earlier this year about jointly crafting an agenda that would allow Bush and Republicans in Congress -- both suffering from depressed public approval ratings -- to get off the defensive. A Republican familiar with the process said these discussions did not result in a consensus.

New House Majority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) has been wrestling with the same problem, so far without success.

The struggles reflect philosophical differences among competing factions within the party, but they also underscore the political consequences of holding power. Republicans insist they remain united around core principles of smaller government, lower taxes and a strong national defense, but can no longer agree on how to implement that philosophy and are squabbling over their delivery on those commitments.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) said the root of the problem is a failure of Washington Republicans to stick to principles, saying that his party risks losing power because it has done "a pretty poor job" of executing its small-government philosophy. "Republicans just need to take stock, go back and realize that the American people elected them because of their principles, and when you do not adhere to those principles, the American people are just as likely to turn you out and choose someone else."

Lately, the drift Perry described has been on glaring display almost daily. A week ago, Republican speakers at a GOP gathering in Memphis complained about the breakdown in fiscal discipline. A few days later, lawmakers in Washington raised the federal debt ceiling by an additional $781 billion and voted to authorize more than $100 billion in new spending.

Republicans are engaged in a face-off in Congress over two sharply different views of how to deal with illegal immigration -- with no compromise in sight. The split between the White House and congressional Republicans over the Dubai port deal underscores cracks in the party's national security consensus and has given Democrats an opening to challenge the GOP on what has long been a core strength. Republicans do remain united behind Bush's Iraq policy, albeit nervously, with widespread concern that a violent and open-ended commitment in that nation will be a liability in November.

The president once clearly set the Republican agenda, and when his approval ratings were higher, congressional Republicans followed his lead. House Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) said that model hit a wall last year when the president's centerpiece proposal to restructure Social Security "turned out to be not doable."

This year, Bush came back to Congress with a scaled-back agenda -- including tax incentives to expand health coverage and some money to study using wood chips and switch grass as alternative energy sources -- that Blunt said "is not as easily defined." And in Bush's weakened state, his proposals command less allegiance. "It's always the challenge of a second-term administration to keep the agenda fresh, to keep moving with the same intensity they had in the first term," Blunt said. "Combine that with less popularity, and people are much slower to salute the flag."

When asked last week whether Republicans had any broad visions to pursue this year, Boehner said, "Before the week is out, you will have a pretty good idea of what they are." But on Thursday night, after House members approved a $92 billion measure to fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and ongoing hurricane relief, lawmakers left town for a week-long break with no agenda ready.

Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.), the vice chairman of the House Republican Conference, said Boehner has been preparing an agenda based on four "silos": national security, retirement security, economic security and energy. But Republicans will have a difficult time turning those broad themes into legislative accomplishments.

The central plank of the national security agenda is border security and a crackdown on illegal immigration. But Republicans are deeply divided between those who favor increased enforcement at borders vs. those, including the president, who want to couple those measures with a guest worker program that would offer avenues for lawful employment for those already here illegally.

Under the retirement security rubric, House leaders would like to see a restructuring of the private pension system and permanent repeal of the estate tax. The former is within reach, although its political appeal may be limited. The latter almost certainly would die in a Senate filibuster. Likewise, the centerpiece of economic security -- an extension of Bush's first-term tax cuts -- faces long odds in the Senate.

Because of these realities, Republicans have adopted a midterm strategy designed to avoid making the election a national referendum on their performance or one that focuses on their policy divisions. Their goal is to concentrate less on the kind of positive message they have challenged the Democrats to produce and more on framing a choice that says, however unhappy voters may be right now with the Republicans' leadership, things would be worse if Democrats were in charge.

"If you are someone who favors small government," Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman said, "you're going to have a clear choice between someone who has cut taxes every year in office, who believes you ought to own your own health care . . . and who plans to cut the deficit over five years versus people who have consistently supported more spending, have opposed tax cuts and who oppose patients owning their own health care. The question is, who's on your side for reducing the size of government?"

Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds (R-N.Y.), chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, chided the Democrats last Thursday for not producing an agenda. But he insisted at the same time that such "inside-the-Beltway" debates will be of little consequence in November, when local issues will decide the closest congressional contests. "We have repeatedly guided our candidates: All politics are local," he said.

In the absence of a positive national message, Republicans also hope to use long-standing "wedge issues" to galvanize their own base and try to put Democrats on record with unpopular votes. Congressional leaders, for instance, plan to push a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.

Democratic pollster Geoffrey Garin said that even some once-powerful weapons in the Republican political arsenal have less appeal today than in the past. "Whether it's taxes or moral conservatism or national security, there's nothing the Republicans have said or done in their experimenting with message that outweighs this overwhelming sense Americans have that President Bush has misled the country onto a negative path," he said.

Republican pollster David Winston said his party can find broad consensus on jobs and competitiveness, fighting terrorism and securing U.S. borders. "Those are the three big items," he said. "There is unanimity on those three. Once you get beyond those three, there may be different senses of direction."

Blunt said it is more important for Democrats to produce a governing agenda because Republicans have a record to run on. But he also said action this year is essential. "We are, after all, legislators," he said. "We need to be making something better, eliminating something or moving in a new direction."

Republicans have a list of prospective priorities. Whether many will become law is problematic, although that does not seem to worry GOP leaders such as Blunt. "We'd like to see them become law, but a vote lets the people know where we stand," he said.

One Republican strategist, who asked not to be identified so he could speak openly about the party's problems, said divisions between moderates and conservatives have left the House and Senate Republican conferences in disarray. "Getting consensus on policy matters . . . is very difficult," he said. "That has caused stagnation and led to perceptions that Republican governance is going nowhere."

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