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Republicans divided on the importance of an agenda for midterm elections

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By Karen Tumulty and Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 17, 2010

Sometime after Labor Day, House Minority Leader John A. Boehner plans to unveil a blueprint of what Republicans will do if they take back control of the chamber. He promises it will be a full plate of policy proposals that will give voters a clear sense of how they would govern.

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But will Republicans actually want to run on those ideas -- or any ideas? Behind the scenes, many are being urged to ignore the leaders and do just the opposite: avoid issues at all costs. Some of the party's most influential political consultants are quietly counseling their clients to stay on the offensive for the November midterm elections and steer clear of taking stands on substance that might give Democratic opponents material for a counterattack.

"The smart political approach would be to make the election about the Democrats," said Neil Newhouse of the powerhouse Republican polling firm Public Opinion Strategies, which is advising more than 50 House and Senate candidates. "In terms of our individual campaigns, I don't think it does a great deal of good" to engage in a debate over the Republicans' own agenda.

Others are skeptical that any Republican policy proposals will have much of an impact. "They really still have to have a sharp contrast with the Democrats," said John McLaughlin, another leading Republican pollster whose firm counts both the House and Senate campaign committees among its clients. "They really need to drive that home before people will be willing to listen to what Republicans stand for."

It's not that Boehner (Ohio) is arguing for a cease-fire. The debate among Republicans comes down to this: The speaker-in-waiting, for all his love of political combat, thinks that voters will not trust GOP candidates if their attacks don't also provide at least some substance. The consultants argue that public anger, if properly stoked, alone can carry the party over the finish line. In their view, getting bogged down in the issues is a distraction and even a potential liability.

One who begs to differ is the architect of the last GOP takeover of the House. "Consultants, in my opinion, are stupid," former speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) said in an interview. "The least idea-oriented, most mindless campaign of simplistic slogans is a mindless idea."

The working title for Boehner's promised agenda is "Commitment to America." It is an unmistakable echo of the fabled 10-point "Contract with America" that Gingrich and his battalion of long-shot candidates signed on the steps on the Capitol in 1994, six weeks before they stunned the political world and won the House.

Yet the strategist who Republicans are studying most closely this year isn't Gingrich: It's Rahm Emanuel, the former Democratic congressman from Chicago and current White House chief of staff. Emanuel led the 2006 campaign that put the House back in Democratic hands 12 years after Gingrich's Republican Revolution. One clue to the balance Boehner is trying to strike between heat and light: House Republican leaders are passing around an old Time magazine story about Emanuel's 2006 election strategy. His formula was for candidates to spend 80 percent of their time on the attack and 20 percent on the issues.

Republicans in the Senate, with dimmer prospects of gaining control, are plotting a much simpler course. Their platform, to the degree they have one, is to offer themselves as an even bigger roadblock to the Democrats than they are now.

A prelude of this message came Thursday in a speech by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) to the Young Republican Leadership Conference. McConnell blasted President Obama and the Democrats for overspending and overreaching but didn't spell out how the GOP would do things differently.

"We're not going to tell you that if you vote Republican you're going to wake up in your dream home with a brand-new Corvette outside, ready to take you to the best job in the world," McConnell said. "You know why? Because government can't deliver that promise."

Though poll numbers suggest a political climate very much like that of 1994, Republicans recognize they face a different kind of challenge.

Back then, it had been four decades since the GOP had run the House, which meant that few Americans knew what Republican rule would look like. Now, as party leaders themselves have acknowledged, they need to convince voters they have learned from the mistakes that cost them the majority only four years ago.

It is no accident that Boehner has put two up-and-coming second-term congressmen, Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) and Peter Roskam (lll.), in charge of drafting the new agenda for governing. Neither has the taint of having been in Washington for the previous 12-year reign of House Republicans.

Although their plan is not likely to be as ambitious as the Contract with America, Republicans say it will be more detailed than anything the Democrats offered in 2006.

"There will be legislation. There will be bills. You'll see what's in them," said McCarthy. He is gathering public suggestions on a Web site the party calls "America Speaking Out," though traditional polling is likely to be the real GPS for drafting any legislation.

It will probably be relatively cautious, and limited to a few of the top concerns of both conservatives and independent voters.

"What's our plan to create jobs and grow the economy?" said GOP pollster David Winston, who is advising the House Republican leadership on the effort. "That's really what we have to address. We need command focus."

Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said it will also include sections on national security and proposals for making internal reforms of the House, to create more transparency as to how the legislative process works.

All of this will sound like well-worn themes to many voters. But in the end, Cantor said, the most important reason for coming up with an agenda is to ensure that Republicans have "something that can become a governing document."

It will be announced with nothing like the fanfare of Gingrich's Capitol steps event, which drew GOP House candidates from across the country. Indeed, the last thing that many of their 2010 contenders would want is a photo op inside the Beltway.

House Republicans also plan to leave it up to their candidates to decide which proposals to embrace, Roskam said.

A clear agenda might not enhance the Republicans' prospects for winning on Nov. 2. But if things go their way, it could come in pretty handy starting Nov. 3. Assuming, of course, that the candidates run on it -- and not from it.


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