The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Republican clash shows the enduring appeal, and dubious benefit, of campaign platforms

Senators denounced the platform from Rick Scott while House leaders stuck with a midterm manifesto

Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando last month. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

As a political spectacle, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s public dismissal of a policy platform released by the top Senate Republican campaign official, Sen. Rick Scott (Fla.), was remarkable.

“If we’re fortunate enough to have the majority next year, I’ll be the majority leader. I’ll decide in consultation with my members what to put on the floor,” McConnell (R-Ky.) said, rejecting Scott’s proposals that, he said, could lead to tax hikes for working-class Americans and the sunset of popular social programs.

Yet the circumstances that produced that public display of Republican discord struck many in Washington this week as downright peculiar: Amid economic turmoil and a land war in Europe, Scott managed to break through the noise with, of all things, a campaign agenda.

Political manifestos like his “Rescue America” plan have proliferated over the past three decades, becoming a staple of party messaging, an instrument of policy development and, in some cases, a vehicle for personal ambitions. But since 1994, when Republicans rode their “Contract With America” to their first House majority in 40 years, they have been increasingly ignored by voters, mocked by observers and shown to be largely irrelevant to the task of actually winning elections.

McConnell rejects Scott tax proposal and agenda for campaign

Political strategists increasingly see elections as an exercise in motivating a party’s existing supporters to cast ballots, not in persuading undecided independents with multipoint policy proposals. Some political scientists are even more reductive, identifying “thermostatic” public opinion, or the constant cycle of backlash against the party in power, as the defining feature of contemporary American politics.

Yet party leaders keep sinking untold time and effort into agendas that have produced uneven dividends. House Democrats, for instance, found that their 2017 version of a governing agenda, “A Better Deal,” fell so flat, ridiculed in some quarters as being a rip-off of the Papa John’s pizza slogan, that they scrapped it within a year, replacing it with a revised “For the People” agenda.

Even then, few Democrats credit the plan with delivering their sweeping wins in the 2018 midterms, which were driven by a massive suburban repudiation of President Donald Trump. Four years later, several key planks of the “For the People” plan, including reducing prescription drug prices, remain undone.

In 2020, the Republican National Committee opted against writing a new platform in 2020, instead simply recycling their 2016 platform. House Republicans, meanwhile, offered a bare-bones “Commitment to America” manifesto that went mostly unnoticed amid the fierce presidential contest.

Yet the compulsion to draft agendas remained mostly undimmed. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who helped draft Republican agendas in 2010 (“A Pledge to America”) and 2016 (“A Better Way”), is tasking his members with building out an expanded “Commitment to America” to be released later this year. “I think you have to tell the American public what you’ll do,” McCarthy said Wednesday.

House Republicans have already issued position papers on border security and parental rights in education, among other issues. Two of the senior House Republicans leading the drafting effort, Reps. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) and Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.), previewed other potential planks this week.

House Republicans plot policy agenda for the midterm elections

McMorris Rodgers, who is in line to chair the Energy and Commerce Committee, pledged a close focus on Big Tech firms, a ripe target for conservatives angry at the platform removal of Trump and some other conservative figures. “Our goal is to protect the First Amendment, free speech, and hold them accountable when they have been shutting down other voices,” she said.

Jordan said midterm voters can expect a Republican-majority House to offer early legislation aimed at stemming the flood of migrants at the southern border and banning funding for risky viral experimentations that some have suggested contributed to the emergence of the coronavirus.

He said Republican committees, meanwhile, would investigate the Afghanistan withdrawal, the leak of wealthy Americans’ tax returns, and top biomedical official Anthony S. Fauci, who Republicans have tried to make a villain of the pandemic for advocating public health measures such as wearing a mask.

“Here’s what they’ve done wrong, here’s what we’re offering as solutions,” Jordan said, describing the effort. “Joe Biden’s not going to sign it, but you’re framing up the 2024 presidential race. That’s how American politics works.”

Brendan Buck, a former senior adviser to two Republican House speakers who participated in the drafting of the 2010 and 2016 party agendas, said the utility of campaign agendas tends to be more internal than external. While some candidates in close races appreciate having a document to campaign on, “conference management” is the bigger goal for Capitol Hill leaders, he said, giving their members a task to focus their energy on and a blueprint for action after the election is over.

“They all want to be Thomas Jefferson and be statesmen and, you know, do big things. And so there’s this demand almost every cycle now that you have to put out an agenda,” Buck said. “As leaders, if you don’t take control of that process, they’re going to do it for you and it may not be what you really want.”

Enter Scott, whose agenda stands apart mainly for all the headaches it caused his fellow Republicans. His 11-point plan included proposals to require all Americans to pay at least some income tax “to have skin in the game,” implying a tax hike on more than half of the adult population, and a proposal to sunset all legislation after five years, because if “a law is worth keeping, Congress can pass it again.” That, McConnell pointed out Tuesday, could be seen as an attack on programs including Social Security and Medicare.

Left unmentioned by McConnell were proposals to create “term limits” for federal employees, not just elected officials, and a blanket ban on the federal government’s collection of demographic data.

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While agendas dating back to the “Contract With America” have typically been meticulously developed among party chieftains to avoid political pitfalls, none of Scott’s proposals, according to a survey of Republican senators, were vetted by his colleagues.

“Things like the ‘Contract With America,’ it was extensively poll-tested, and there was nothing in there that didn’t hit a pretty high number on people thinking this is something the government should do,” said Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), a member of the Republican leadership who said he knew nothing of Scott’s document’s provenance.

Democrats quickly pounced, tagging Republican candidates in Senate races across the country with Scott’s proposals, an association that was given weight due to his position as chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which is expected to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on behalf of the party’s candidates this year.

Scott, who left the Tuesday news conference moments before McConnell delivered his dressing-down, sought to put distance between his plan and the rest of the party in a brief interview Wednesday. “It’s not the Republican plan. It’s more what I believe in,” he said, adding, “Everybody’s got a different approach. That’s mine.”

That is a different tack from what the agenda itself states. “Americans deserve to know what we will do when given the chance to govern,” Scott wrote in the preamble, which also predicted that the document would be “ridiculed by the ‘woke’ left, mocked by Washington insiders, and strike fear in the heart of some Republicans. At least I hope so.”

Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.), chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said Scott’s attempts to distance himself from the document weren’t credible and that Republicans would continue to face attacks citing it. “He’s the chair of the Republican campaign committee. Clearly, he’s saying, if they’re successful in the fall, that’s what they are going to be doing,” Peters said.

If anyone has been immune to the agenda-writing fever, it has been McConnell, who has been forthright in public and private, according to multiple Republican senators, about turning the coming midterm elections into a referendum on President Biden and Democrats in Congress, not on any particular suite of Republican policies.

Much of that, McConnell allies say, has to do with the Kentuckian’s four decades of experience and the nature of the Senate, where only one-third of the membership at most is up for reelection any given cycle and campaigns tend to be somewhat less nationalized and better funded than House races.

“What he understands is these campaigns are going to be conducted individually,” said Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), the number two Senate Republican leader. “What he tries to do, I think, is make sure that as a conference and as a leadership” we’re not “getting in the way of any campaigns and letting our candidates have the best chance that they can to succeed. Support them with resources and information and research, whatever they need, but not an overly prescriptive plan or agenda that they necessarily have to subscribe to.”

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Several of the Republicans on this year’s ballot said they had no plans to associate themselves with Scott’s agenda, or any other, for that matter. “I think most people know where Republicans are,” said Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.). “I think people in Florida will talk about it a lot and Rick’s going to talk about a lot. But I have not had anybody in” Oklahoma “so far that I can recall right now that’s asked me about it.”

Scott does have supporters in the party ranks. Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.) said Republicans risked being tagged as “the party of no or I’m not interested” if they simply followed McConnell’s lead.

“Independents are the individuals that elect the swing-state senators and the president, and I think they want something other than no or I’m not interested,” Braun said. “I’m glad Rick did it. Nothing is going to be perfect” but “we’ve got to be for something.”

Paul Kane contributed to this report.