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Legacy Content / OFF TO THE RACES

Sometimes Silence Is Golden

The GOP Would Be Well-Advised To Take A Page From The Democratic Playbook And Steer Clear Of Politically Divisive Issues

May 12, 2009

The other day, a Republican campaign operative whose experience dates back to George H.W. Bush's White House political office was lamenting all the hand-wringing and teeth gnashing over the future of the Republican Party. To this seasoned professional, with the last election having occurred just over six months ago, and the next election being nearly 18 months away, it is unrealistic to expect the GOP to have found its post-election voice this soon.

Even factoring in a certain amount of wishful thinking, he might have been right, but perhaps for a different reason. At this stage, with Democrats fully ensconced in power, the situation is pretty binary.

President Obama and Democrats are either successful in moving their agenda through, or they are not. If they are successful, Republicans could have the greatest message in the world and it wouldn't help much. But if Obama and Democrats are not successful in pushing through their agenda, Republican stock will soar, whether the GOP has a message or not.

 

New presidents are initially assessed on competence and first impressions more than anything else. Whether people actually agree with the substance of policies comes a bit later. A president and new administration are viewed closely and a bit anxiously by a public trying to assess whether the new team knows what they are doing and can get it done.

To be sure, voters had some misgivings on the contents of the economic stimulus package and, for that matter, the size of the budget.

But neither caused a significant problem, as Obama's job approval ratings have actually ticked up a bit this month. Having averaged in the low 60s in the Gallup Poll from January through April, his numbers have consistently remained at or above 66 percent in Gallup's three-day moving average since May 2.

With their House and Senate losses in 2006 and Obama's victory in 2008, Republicans now find themselves in a political time-out chair.

Right now, nobody is listening to them and nobody cares what the GOP thinks. As painful as that must be for Republicans, it does provide them with an opportunity to do some thinking, so that when their time-out period is up and they rejoin the class, they will be able to come in with a new approach, some new thoughts and something of a fresh start.

While this line of thinking might sound a bit like trying to turn lemons into lemonade, that's what life can be about; turning adversity into opportunity.

As long as Republicans were in power, while they weren't in the mood to make changes, they also weren't in a position to do the rebranding and retooling that parties are sometimes required to do. That can only be done when that party is out of view.

It's easier to say that Republicans need to change than it is to say what they should change. But maybe Republicans should take a page from the Democratic playbook.

It would be unprincipled, intellectually bankrupt and pointless for the Republican Party to move from the right to the left on issues or overall positioning. But, on some issues, maybe they would be best off being silent.

When Democrats lost their House and Senate majorities in 1994, polling for organized labor showed that the top issue for union members voting Republican for Congress was guns, something that had nothing to do with unions.

In 2000, when Al Gore lost West Virginia, Gore's state manager later said that the top three reasons for Gore's defeat there were guns, guns and guns. Guns probably played a factor in not only Gore's loss of his home state of Tennessee but in every state that even touched Tennessee.

It was the presidential loss in 2000, on top of the congressional losses in 1994, that convinced the Democratic Party to simply shut up on guns. As much as many Democratic elected officials wanted to legislate the issue, they realized that they couldn't get re-elected if they kept offending so many union members, white males and rural and small-town voters on the gun issue.

Gun-control advocates had plenty of other reasons to support Democrats, so remaining silent on the issue didn't hurt the party that much. Rather, it enabled it to have a conversation with voters who otherwise would not listen as long as guns were on the table.

Republicans need to think about this in terms of their emphasis on certain social and cultural issues. The GOP has turned away a large number of highly educated, economically upscale voters who would be a natural fit for the party were it not for these divisive subjects.

Republicans have created problems for themselves in the libertarian-leaning Mountain West as well because of their stance on these issues. When westerners say they want government out of their lives, they mean out of the whole house, including the bedroom. Generationally, Republicans are killing themselves with voters who are now under 35, who see the party as narrow and intolerant. As Will Rogers used to say, "When you find yourself in a hole, stop digging."

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