The Post reports that Republicans have opened up a 6-point lead in the generic congressional poll. It is hard to escape the conclusion that a GOP victory would amount to a vote of no confidence in the White House:


President Barack Obama, center, holds a meeting with members of Congress on foreign policy including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat from Nevada, Obama, left, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican from Kentucky, in Cabinet Room of the White House. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

Driving attitudes is a pervasive sense of a country in trouble. Overwhelming majorities say the country is badly off-track and give the economy negative ratings. Economic expectations are little better today than they were at this time four years ago.

Six in 10 say they cannot trust the government in Washington to do what is right — the same as a year ago in the aftermath of the government shutdown and the botched rollout of the federal Web site for the Affordable Care Act.

With multiple crises confronting the country — including the spread of Ebola in West Africa and cases here at home, as well as threats from Islamic State militants — a majority now says the government’s ability to deal with big problems has declined in the past few years. Among those who say this, more — by 3 to 1 — blame Obama and the Democrats rather than Republicans in Congress.

It is worse in the battleground states with competitive Senate races: “In nine states with competitive Senate races, voters express a preference for voting for the Republican in the House election by a margin of 57 percent to 39 percent. . . . In many of the states with competitive Senate races, other public polls have found that Obama’s approval is below his national numbers, creating a drag on Democratic candidates.”

The results may be similar but voter sentiment is quite different this year than in 2010, when the overriding theme was conservative antagonism toward government overreach, most especially toward Obamacare. Now, one senses near desperation among all voters: Can’t these guys do anything? What is the matter with the president? In that regard, it is a more dangerous environment for Democrats, who now must battle against GOP enthusiasm and liberals’ exasperation and even embarrassment.

It is also more treacherous terrain for Republicans, who misread public opinion at their own peril. Voters are looking for executive competence, something the Congress can affect only indirectly through oversight and the budget. Voters are dismayed and anxiety ridden by the foreign policy disasters and rise of the Islamic State. Here Congress can use the power of the purse to restore defense funding, pass sanctions against Iran and use oversight, the bully pulpit and confirmation hearings to press the administration for a more coherent policy and more competent staff. But once again the president remains the commander in chief.

What Republicans can do is restore some confidence that at least where there is agreement, government can attend to important issues. Republicans would be well advised to divide initiatives into two piles.

One stack should contain legislation which enjoys bipartisan support. A comprehensive energy bill, reform of job training programs and possibly corporate tax reform with an emphasis on job creation (e.g. making our corporate tax rate more competitive, allowing companies to  repatriate money from overseas without a huge tax hit) should at the top of the list.  Deals on Medicaid reform (expansion for block granting, or at least legislatively directing waivers for innovative state alternatives like Indiana’s), as well as higher education reform (e.g. greater transparency for college tuition, use of federal aid for schools other than 4-year colleges) are possible as well. On foreign policy, enhanced sanctions against Iran and increasing defense spending should gain bipartisan support.

The second pile should be things that the GOP cannot accomplish without the White House. Here it is important to share Republican solutions with voters, forcing Democrats to try to block them or the president to veto them. This can’t be a bizarre assortment of fantasy legislation (e.g. abolish major areas of government, repeal Obamacare with no replacement.) The GOP should focus on the sort of common-sense center-right proposal which prompt voters to say: “Hey these guys aren’t nuts; they have some good ideas,” not “These guys are nuts; we can’t give them the White House too.” Sure the far right will think that the latter sorts of schemes are just fine and that Republicans need only advocate them more frequently and more loudly. But really, didn’t these same people prove to be paper tigers in the primaries and entirely irresponsible in last year’s shutdown?

Here is where innovators like Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and particularly Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) can shine. Bills should follow some basic criteria: 1. The principle purpose is reform, not penny pinching; 2. The lower or middle class benefits; and 3. If the welfare state bureaucracy is doing something poorly (e.g. Obamacare, food stamps) replace it with something better. That leaves the field wide-open for welfare reform, full-blown tax reform, regulatory reform, and an Obamacare alternative. Legislation may include a more decentralized solution in which the feds take a more supportive role (e.g. funding)  but states construct programs. Oh yes, if some of these are so compelling they might gain Democratic support and move over to the first stack.

What Republicans can’t do is spend their time trying to chop chunks of government, obsess on the spending side, cut holes in the safety net, perpetuate cronyism or let paranoia gut anti-terror measures (e.g. drones, NSA). Senate gadflies are about to learn that being in the majority is far different than throwing spitballs from the minority. They will need to show they can problem-solve (or they will confirm concerns that they cannot).

If the GOP follows this sort of approach the country will be better off, the party’s reputation will be enhanced and the table will be set for a reform-minded Republican president. If not, Hillary Clinton can start measuring the drapes.