The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Rick Scott reveals the GOP’s election strategy: All culture war, all the time

(Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

When you’re in the opposition and your party lacks a clear leader (other than your mad exiled king), there are plenty of opportunities for political entrepreneurship. If you come up with a new way to threaten trans kids or a bold new agenda for Republicans to follow should they take over Congress, you can get a bunch of attention and perhaps boost your profile and ambitions.

So it is that Sen. Rick Scott of Florida, a potential future presidential candidate and chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which tries to elect Republicans to the Senate, has released an 11-point blueprint that he hopes all Republicans will rally around as the midterms approach.

It’s as good a summary as you’ll find of what passes for an “agenda” for today’s Republican Party, in all its vulgar, paranoid, resentful glory.

The document’s first words are “Dear Fellow Americans, the militant left now controls the entire federal government, the news media, academia, Hollywood, and most corporate boardrooms," and it only gets worse from there.

The 11 points resemble policy proposals, but every one is wrapped in culture-war provocation. Is the critical race theory panic No. 1? Of course it is: “Our kids will say the pledge of allegiance, salute the Flag, learn that America is a great country, and choose the school that best fits them,” reads the first item.

From there, we get a string of meaningless chest-thumping (“We will protect, defend, and promote the American Family at all costs”), culture-war grunts (“Men are men, women are women, and unborn babies are babies”), and the requisite nod to Trump (“We will secure our border, finish building the wall, and name it after President Donald Trump”).

And because it wouldn’t be a GOP “policy” document without inane ideas to make government less efficient and effective, it includes requiring “term limits” for government employees (heaven forbid we should have people with experience working in public service) and suggests cutting IRS funding and staffing by 50 percent.

Because apparently, Scott — the wealthiest member of Congress, with a fortune of a quarter-billion dollars, who was chief executive of a hospital chain that committed the largest Medicare fraud in history to that date — thinks it’s too hard for rich people to cheat on their taxes.

There’s something of an internal GOP debate about whether it’s necessary to have any agenda at all going into the midterms, even one this ridiculous. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) believes it isn’t necessary; if the election (like most midterms) is a referendum on the president, Republicans will do quite well. Others are less sure and would like to at least claim that they have ideas for what they would do with the power they’re seeking.

Which is why, as The Post recently reported, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) has been consulting with Newt Gingrich on a new “Contract With America,” i.e., poll-tested nostrums that could be passed off as an actual substantive agenda. So far, nothing has been produced, but it won’t be hard to come up with something resembling Scott’s list of culture-war crowd-pleasers (if the crowd is the attendees at a Trump rally, that is).

As a matter of strategy, they’re both right. McConnell is right that most of the time in midterms voters neither know nor care what the opposition is offering. The election will almost certainly turn on President Biden’s popularity, in addition to the state of the pandemic and the economy.

On the other hand, Scott and others are right that it doesn’t hurt to have something you can call an agenda, no matter how phony or insincere it is. It garners news coverage that paints you, however inaccurately, as serious about governing. Then after you win, it allows you to propagate a story about the election — again, however inaccurately — that claims you have a mandate from the public for whatever ludicrous ideas you want to pursue.

That’s what happened with the Contract With America in 1994. Though the vast majority of voters had never even heard of it by Election Day, Gingrich convinced the news media that it was the reason Republicans won and that it provided a powerful mandate for change.

One hopes that even if Republicans rally around something like Scott’s plan, reporters will be less gullible this time. The Republican Party has become little more than an engine of resentment, one that runs on whatever fuel seems to be supercharging its supporters’ anger this month. Putting it in a glossy brochure doesn’t make it any more legitimate.

A year ago, none of them had heard of critical race theory; now they all claim it’s the most important thing in the world, once they remembered how powerful a motivator White grievance can be. A few weeks from now, they might decide that making trans kids’ lives miserable has politically run its course, and they’ll turn to something else. What it adds up to is not so much an “agenda” as a rotating list of things to be mad about.

One thing’s for sure: Republicans are feeling as confident as they ever have, and they won’t be bothered with complicated problems that demand difficult policy solutions. It’s going to be nothing but culture war from here on out.