Can the Republicans win in November with a negative strategy?

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Sunday, April 4, 2010

The Post asked political experts whether the Republican Party would win in November with a negative strategy. Responses below from Christine Todd Whitman, Scott Keeter, Martin Frost, Newt Gingrich, Mark Penn, Heather Wilson and Dana Perino.

CHRISTINE TODD WHITMAN

Chair of the Republican Leadership Council; governor of New Jersey from 1994 to 2001

In many respects, it is both comfortable and easy to be in the opposition; pointing out what is wrong with the majority party's proposals has a deceptive appeal. But the Republican Party cannot afford to simply be the party of no; we need to provide a compelling counterpoint to the Obama administration's tax-spend-and-borrow policies. Republicans have much to add to the current debates, but only if we do not simply point out the negatives but also propose our own methods for tackling the real issues our nation is facing.

People want leaders to tell them where we need to be going, and denigrating the majority party is not a road map that they can follow. While the Democrats seem to have done a good job of ignoring public concerns with the recently passed health bill, if the Republicans only resort to chants of "kill the bill," without offering viable remedies, we gain no advantage. The second risk here is marginalization; on health care, if voters start to see benefits or even a lack of disaster from the recently passed legislation, Republicans could be in jeopardy over our doomsday predictions.

In every issue being discussed today there are Republican alternatives. Let's start there and give the voters a real choice going into November.

SCOTT KEETER

Director of survey research at the Pew Research Center

However one characterizes the Republican Party's strategy, there's no indication right now that it is hurting them politically. Congressional trial heat polls show the GOP at parity with the Democrats. Polls asking which party could do a better job on important issues have found the Republicans matching or gaining ground on the Democrats on handling the economy, health care and the deficit. And Republicans are more enthusiastic than Democrats about voting this year.

All of this has led to speculation that the GOP might make large gains this fall, perhaps comparable to those in 1994. But there are important differences between 2010 and 1994. One is that the overall image of the Republican Party is considerably more negative now (46 percent favorable) than it was in 1994 (63 percent favorable). Similarly, fewer people now than in 1994 say that the Republican Party is doing a good job of offering solutions to the country's problems (29 percent now, 41 percent in 1994). Of course, economic conditions are much worse than in 1994. This makes the fall election more of a referendum on the incumbent party than a choice between Democratic and Republican ideas. If the economy rallies, what the GOP offers and how the party is viewed is likely to become more important to voters.

MARTIN FROST

Chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee from 1995 to 1998; representative from Texas from 1979 to 2005

Running strictly on a strategy of "no" is dangerous for any party. In 1994 the Republicans opposed much of what President Bill Clinton sought legislatively, but they did have some positive talking points -- for example, their Contract with America. When I was chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in 1996 and 1998, we combined a positive message with a critique of House Speaker Newt Gingrich and picked up a total of 14 seats -- not enough to take the House back but close enough that Democrats could win in a good year. Democrats in 2006 and 2008 ran against President George W. Bush on the Iraq war, but they also emphasized legislative goals such as improving health care and working for a cleaner environment and energy independence.

I am reluctant to give Republicans advice, but they will need to join the debate on the economy if they expect to make significant gains. It won't be enough for them simply to be against health-care reform and against large deficits -- particularly the latter, since their party was spending freely when they were in control. Both parties will need specific job-creation proposals and will need to convince the public that they have a clear vision of how to improve the economy. If both parties fail on this, then Democratic and Republicans incumbents could have a very rough time. We may see an election in which incumbents of the out party are defeated along with incumbents of the majority party. Then it will just be a question of who is left standing.

NEWT GINGRICH

Republican speaker of the House from 1995 to 1999

No and yes is the winning strategy for Republicans.

We should firmly say no to bad policies and enthusiastically say yes to good policies to draw a clear distinction between our vision for America and the left's job-killing, tax-increasing, deficit-increasing, big-bureaucracy, Washington-centered, politician-dominated vision.

We should say no to 16,000 new IRS agents who would become "health policemen." We should say no to a cap-and-trade bill that would raise the cost of energy and drive jobs out of the United States.

We should enthusiastically say yes to good solutions that fit our values and principles. We are for litigation reform to bring down the cost of health care. We should be for reforms to save $70 billion to $120 billion a year that the incompetent bureaucracy currently pays to crooks in Medicare and Medicaid. We can be for drilling offshore now to create American jobs and keep Americans' money here now.

We can be for real school reform to help poor children get good educations. We can be for trying terrorists in military tribunals. There are many things to say yes to.

MARK PENN

Chief executive of Burson-Marsteller; adviser to Hillary Clinton's 2008 presidential campaign; pollster and adviser to Bill Clinton from 1995 through 2000

The Republicans have made a living out of running tough, negative campaigns and presenting "no" as a strategy. It's not really a strategy but a substitute for good ideas. Perhaps the best example of that was when Newt Gingrich shut down the government to stop Washington spending. He thought he would be welcomed as a hero. It backfired big-time -- the public wanted progress, not partisanship.

They did a lot better with the Contract for America. That played to their strengths of lower deficits, smaller government and lower taxes -- themes that if backed by good policies have typically been their best cards.

While there is a lot of dissatisfaction with the health-care bill, talk of repeal rather than select fixes misses the mark and again puts Republicans down as the party of "no," not of constructive bipartisanship and action.

And the voters who will decide the election -- the vital center -- are the ones most likely to want to see results over insults.

Today's Republican leaders in Congress still have only a 36 percent approval rating in CNN polling, even if they are creeping up in the generic horse race. The swing electorate today likes neither the Democrats nor the Republicans in Congress, and that can make for some extreme volatility between now and November. It is the party that wins them over with ideas that is most likely to go home with their votes.

Many years ago I worked on a successful campaign based simply of the slogan of "Ya Basta" -- enough. Today, Americans have had enough of enough. They want something more.

HEATHER WILSON

Republican representative from New Mexico from 1998 through 2008

Being the non-incumbent party will be enough for Republicans to win quite a few seats this year. Irresponsible spending by President Obama and congressional Democrats and a health-care law that a majority of Americans didn't want have underscored real differences between the parties.

While Democratic partisans will try to dismiss Republicans as just the party of "no," that's a tough sell with an informed public.

America watched a health-care summit in which Republicans who are not household names went toe-to-toe with the president and presented a positive and very different vision of how to control health costs and improve access to and quality of care.

In Virginia, New Jersey and Massachusetts, Republicans put forward a positive agenda for job creation, fiscal responsibility and national security. They won in states where no one thought initially Republicans had a chance.

We are a center-right country with a left-leaning government in Washington doing everything it can to jam through an unpopular agenda. In November, Republicans of character who show that they know a better way on jobs, defense, spending and health care will win.

DANA PERINO

White House press secretary to President George W. Bush

Democrats complaining that Republicans just say no to everything must be forgetting their 2006 strategy. They were against President George W. Bush on everything -- the Iraq war, Social Security reform, even his judicial nominees. They continued to run against him in 2008. Finally, the effect has worn off.

But Republicans have a more effective strategy than just showing President Obama the hand.

On Obama's biggest decision, sending more troops to Afghanistan, the GOP supported him while his party was lukewarm. Republicans have said no when policy merited it, including: opposing the structure of a stimulus package that didn't create the jobs that were promised; rejecting the health-care bill that went from being paid for through reform and efficiency to massive tax hikes and benefit cuts; and crying foul when the run-up in government spending threatened America's bond rating. But every GOP "no" has been followed by "but what about this?" For example, Wisconsin Republican Rep. Paul Ryan's bold budget Road Map for America, which Democrats trashed.

Everyone who runs for office has to stand for something. Republicans know that, and that's why they're in a strong position heading into November.


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