Two and a half months ago, the Republicans were in the doldrums. The GOP House was staging a mutiny against its speaker. Activists were hollering about the fiscal cliff deal; President Obama’s poll numbers were sky-high. Anti-gun legislation was gaining steam. And Scott Brown begged out of the Massachusetts Senate race.
Now, Republicans are united in the House and Senate. The House has put forth a budget and forced the Senate to do so as well. The contrast has greatly helped the conservatives. Meanwhile, Obama horribly overplayed his hand on the sequester. Now any gun legislation that does get through looks to be puny. Conservatives are rallying around at least the idea of immigration reform, and a new wave of gay-marriage tolerance (if not support) is breaking out on the right.
The reversal is emblematic of how quickly fortunes can reverse, and Republicans should be fully aware that the bloom may be off the rose for them, too, if they overstep or fumble away opportunities.
How did the GOP get this far in such a short time? For starters, the House GOP learned the perils of division and made common bond with their leadership. Then conservative favorites decided not to pander to the base but nudge the party forward on a variety of fronts. For that, the party owes a debt of gratitude to Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio), as well to House members such as Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), who pressed ahead on civil liberties, immigration, gay marriage and a reform agenda based on upward opportunity. Whether by water bottle or filibuster, Republicans also learned to grab the media spotlight away from the White House. Then, to everyone’s surprise (both foes and allies), the Republican National Committee did a bang-up job on its report, giving new life to internal remediation and reaffirming the need to explain what the party is about and why it is good for people. It won’t last forever, but for once multiple forces have all been pulling in the same, sane direction.
What is next for the GOP?
On the budget, the House should pass its version and let the Senate try to ram through its tax-and-spend-monstrosity. I think there is little hope for any deal, and in this case the House shouldn’t make a bad one. Instead of a bad grand bargain, Republicans should look for a continuing resolution, plus some agreed-upon fixes (e.g. discretion for Pentagon spending, modest Medicare reform). But I remain unconvinced that corporate tax reform, individual tax reform with lower rates or substantial entitlement reform can be obtained without a huge tax hike (another one); that is a nonstarter for the GOP.
Having pocketed the sequester cuts, shown a vivid contrast between the two parties on budgeting and avoided a government shutdown that would be blamed on them, Republicans should move on. Passage of an energy bill seems the next logical step in showing its determination to grow the economy. By the way, if passed and implemented, energy development should both boost economic activity and send more revenue to the Treasury, making budget decisions less difficult.
Then Republicans should look for some modest but feel-good items of the type House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), Rubio and Ryan have all been talking about. These include a variety of measures aimed at quality of life, including K-12 education reform; consumer disclosure for college tuition costs (and return on the investment in various majors); streamlining and modernizing job training programs; and changes in federal labor law to allow flex time in lieu of overtime to aid the juggling of work and family.
But there are two significant items out there, immigration reform and health care, once thought to be poison for the GOP, which can either be lost opportunities or be successful demonstrations of the party’s commitment to inclusion and conservative reform. There does seem to be consensus building on immigration, but it would be a mistake to rattle the Senate by jamming through legislation with no hearings or debate. If the legislation is solid, it can pass in November as easily as in July.
On health care it is long past the time for the GOP to propose a coherent, unified health-care plan that serves as an alternative to Obamacare. The rollout of Obamacare and the unintended consequences of the myriad of regulations and taxes will, I suspect, make the law even more untenable and prompt some delays. But Republicans must be prepared with an alternative built around protection for preexisting illnesses and creation of a more effective market for health care that empowers consumers and allows them to shop for value. Numerous ideas have been floating around. But it is time, just as Ryan did on Medicare and Medicaid, for some energetic lawmaker(s) or even a governor (with experience in the perils of Medicaid) to put together a proposal that Republicans can point to as the viable pro-consumer, market-based alternative to Obamacare. If the GOP is ever going to replace Obamacare and convince voters that its candidates are tuned into quality-of-life issues, this is an essential task over the months to come.
In politics, momentum can be fleeting. The GOP has started strong, but it would be a mistake to take its foot off the pedal. Rather, it is time to build on successes and forge ahead.