In Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal, freshman Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) proposed an approach for sharpening the differences between the parties and garnering credit for Republicans who have tried to move forward on many fronts. He contends that Republicans have come out looking like the ones responsible for gridlock. Republicans have to go on “offense,” he urged, which is a tall order for the minority party in the Senate. He laid out a plan called “America’s Choice”:
America’s Choice seeks to highlight the differences between the Republican Party and the Democratic Party led by President Obama. It could do so over the coming months by presenting to the country, through a series of votes in the House of Representatives, the battle between those who believe in broadest terms in limited government and freedom and those who promote government control and dependency.
What are the choices these votes could present? Growing government spending and debt or growing the private sector and reducing government. Limiting energy development or using America’s energy resources. Punishing success or pro-growth tax reform. A government takeover of health care or repealing ObamaCare and replacing it with patient-centered, free-market reforms.
I spoke with him by phone yesterday. He explained that rather than react to the president and get blamed when secret negotiations don’t result in deals, Republicans in the House and Senate should take an issue a month, highlight it, introduce legislation and sell it to the American people.
Rather than have waited for the White House to initiate action last year or meekly followed the congressional calendar, he said, “A better path would have been to have an open and instructive strategy. This is what President Obama is about, and this is what we are about.” In selecting five issues (energy, spending, tax reform, regulation and health-care reform including repeal of Obamacare) to focus on and collaborating on a common set of facts, Johnson thinks that Republicans can convince the American people that Republicans are closer to their views on government than are the Democrats. On restraining the size of government, for example, the message he said is simple: “He wants to grow government. We’re about growing the private sector.”
Much of this will not involve starting afresh on legislation. He pointed to Ohio Sen. Rob Portman’s pro-growth jobs package, for example, that could be adopted. In addition, there is legislation that has passed the House but never received a vote in the Senate.
Johnson told me, “The hope is that Senate Democrats will actually pass some of this. Do I think that is likely? No.” But he said, the process of presenting legislation and contrasting philosophies of government is a useful one.
He said that he has already consulted with 10 senators and gotten positive feedback. He said that on the House side, “we sat down with a good group of House members including some leadership.” The reaction to those meetings and to his Wall Street Journal piece have been encouraging, he said.
Johnson’s very public style of marketing legislation, he conceded, is not how government usually operates. To someone coming from the private sector, however, as he did, “it is obvious” that lawmakers have to development a coherent message and sell their ideas to the public. At the very least, Johnson’s goal is to line up with that of Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.): Lay out a vision, explain it to voters and contrast it with the president’s.
Republicans don’t control the Senate calendar. They will be faced with routine business (confirmations, the budget) that require their attention. So there is no guarantee that Johnson and his colleagues can proceed in such a methodical way. But the plan to get Republicans to focus on presenting a unified message is nevertheless important. And it may go a long way toward educating the voters that while the House has done its work, the do-nothing Senate under Sen. Harry Reid’s leadership hasn’t. At the very least, voters might figure out what Republicans believe and why the gap between their proposals and this president is essential unbridgeable.