Some Republicans, Democrats are playing down upcoming GOP policy agenda

Now that the 2010 midterm elections are over, tongues have already started wagging over who the potential Republican presidential candidates may be in 2012.
By Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 22, 2010; 11:44 AM

Democrats have spent months casting the GOP as the "Party of No," effectively daring the party to offer more detailed policy ideas. Republicans so far have offered few, instead focusing their energy on criticizing President Obama and congressional Democrats.

Now, both sides are heavily hyping Thursday's official release of the Republicans' new policy agenda. But some lawmakers and strategists on both sides of the aisle said the proposal could have only a small impact on the campaign trail this fall or a Congress controlled by Republicans.

Republicans, according to sources, are unlikely to offer bold new proposals that would overhaul key programs such as Social Security - the kind of controversial issue that could push undecided voters to one party or the other. The policy document, which GOP leaders will present to lawmakers Wednesday and formally release on Thursday, is expected to hew closely to positions they have already announced over the past 20 months.

Many of the ideas likely to be included, such as requiring bills to be posted online three days before votes, are relatively non-controversial. And Republican candidates challenging Democratic incumbents may not even use the document for their campaigns.

Unlike in 1994, when most of the party's candidates actually came to Washington to sign the "Contract With America," the GOP unveiling on Thursday will feature only 12 incumbent lawmakers.

"It's not taking us where we ultimately have to go as a country, dealing with entitlements and permanent tax changes," said Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), who had advocated for a plan that dealt specifically with Social Security. "But I can't fault the [Republican] leadership, because it is political season and they are putting out the best possible thing."

Doug Schoen, a Democratic pollster who has been highly critical of the strategy of Obama and congressional Democrats, expressed doubts the GOP proposal will dramatically change how people view the Republicans.

"People at home are less concerned with who's reading a bill than what's going to improve the economy," he said.

This limited impact is in some ways by design. Top Republicans have long said privately they view the election as 80 percent about how voters view congressional Democrats and Obama, so they are wary of controversial plans that would shift attention to the GOP.

For example, even as they cast him as one of the party's "Young Guns," Republicans have distanced themselves from the proposal of Rep. Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), backed by Nunes and more than a dozen other congressional Republicans, that would change both Social Security and Medicare through ideas such as raising the retirement age and requiring Medicare recipients to purchase plans from private insurance companies.

Instead of offering policy plans earlier in the year, Republicans launched an initiative called "American Speaking Out" to solicit ideas from grass-roots activists that they could incorporate into their agenda. They created a Web site for people to send in ideas and are holding dozens of town halls.

Now, with less than two months before Election Day, Republicans will announce the results, which White House officials seem as eager to see as conservatives.

"They have hidden the details of their agenda for months claiming that they wanted to give Americans a chance to help guide them," White House Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer wrote in a post on the White House's blog Wednesday morning. He then started a critique of what he expected would not be in the plan, a day before its release.

Republican lawmakers say that part of the project's goal is to convince Americans that the GOP was eager to hear their ideas, not just impose them from the top down, as the GOP says Democrats have done.

"If nothing else, it dispels the 'Party of No,' " said Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.).

But Republicans acknowledge the document may have limited impact in part because voters often more against one party than for another.

"While people usually go to the polls to vote against something rather than vote for something, it is nice to give voters an extra incentive to vote for you," said John Feehery, a former top GOP aide on Capitol Hill.

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