House Republicans plan online community, to find a voice and set the tone

Saying America deserves a Congress that respects the priorities of the people, House Republicans have launched a website called America Speaking Out, to build grassroots support and get some ideas about crafting a new agenda.
By Perry Bacon Jr. and Paul Kane
Tuesday, May 25, 2010

House Republicans will unveil on Tuesday a Web site they will use to solicit policy ideas from the public, the first step in the development of a platform that they will present to voters this fall.

Called "America Speaking Out," the site borrows from the approaches of popular Web sites such as Wikipedia and Starting this week, people will be able to go to, submit ideas, rate those of others, and post their comments on Facebook and Twitter through the site.

The most prominent users will earn "badges," though the GOP has not yet determined what rewards people could get. House Republicans also will go on the site and interact with users. Up to a dozen staff members will be monitoring the Web site, party aides said, both to keep it running properly and to filter out inappropriate messages.

The Web site formally starts the GOP's process of touting its own vision and policies to voters, after spending most of the last 16 months bashing President Obama and congressional Democrats.

And Republicans, aware that some of the anti-Washington fervor among the public is aimed at both parties, don't want to simply put out a formal agenda without buy-in from voters, particularly conservatives. So, along with the site, House Republicans will hold town hall meetings around the country starting next week. They want to use this process to get ideas for the "Contract With America"-style policy document they are set to release closer to the election, which would list principles and proposals that Republicans would adopt if they won control of the House.

"Will there be items on this page that we disagree with? Yeah," said Rep. Kevin McCarthy (Calif.), a member of the House Republican leadership and one of the initiative's architects. "But this is about an open discussion of the ideas. One of the biggest problems is no one believes anybody in Washington is listening."

McCarthy, in an interview, said he wants the public to have a chance to propose ideas but acknowledged that the GOP wouldn't necessarily be beholden to them. Online audiences often have different priorities than Washington politicians: When the White House invited people online last year to submit questions that President Obama would then answer, one of the most popular subjects was whether legalizing marijuana would improve the economy. (Obama answered in the negative.)

"This isn't 'American Idol,' " said McCarthy, adding that the top vote-getting idea on the site might not be adopted by the GOP. Referring to the party's broader platform, he said, "we are in the process of creating ours, so it's based upon our principles."

The site gives some hint of the GOP's broader platform. Republicans have four categories for ideas that align with GOP principles: security, accountability, values and prosperity. But the fifth section, called "Open Mic," will provide an outlet for the kind of nontraditional ideas party leaders say they want.

The new site is part of a larger series of initiatives by Republicans to rebrand their party as young, Web-savvy and anti-Washington, as polls show younger voters favor Democrats while congressional Republicans are as unpopular as Democrats with the overall electorate. Republicans want to show they would run things differently than the 2006 GOP, which was voted out amid declining popularity ratings and a number of members facing ethics scandals or indictments.

Republicans have already recruited a crop of younger candidates, many of whom have never held political office. The party has committed to reforms of congressional process, such as a ban on earmarks. One new project, called "YouCut," gives people online the chance to vote every week for one of five federal programs to scrap. Republicans will then demand a House vote on the top choice. "Our task is to say, 'Look, we understand we were fired in 2006 for a reason,' " Rep. Eric Cantor (Va.), the House's No. 2 Republican, said in an interview. "We have learned and we have grown. The election gives us a chance to say we get it."

Republicans, particularly after the defeat of a GOP candidate in a conservative-leaning district in Pennsylvania last week, concede that they must do more than simply attack Obama and congressional Democrats to win. They hope this new site will be a key step in showing that the party is interested in governing.

"Being opposed to the status quo, that gets you in the 30s" in terms of percentage of voter support, said Rep. Adam H. Putnam (R-Fla.). "But to get the majority, you have to communicate what you are for. The party has to define itself based on its solutions."

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