As their legislative conflicts with President Obama escalate, congressional Republicans are doubling down on the strategy that helped them score big congressional gains in 2010 but produced a thumping presidential defeat in 2012.
After a brief window of introspection following Obama’s reelection, congressional Republicans, especially in the House, have shelved almost any effort to reposition the party or reshape its message. That shift was crystallized this week when House Republicans revived, virtually unchanged from Obama’s first term, the austere budget drafted by Rep. Paul Ryan.
This retreat to more conventionally conservative positions, not only on the budget but also on other issues such as gun control, might be reconsidered in later negotiations. Yet it demonstrates the depth of the party’s demand for orthodoxy—and how much that constrains its ability to pursue voters beyond its traditional coalition. The GOP might overcome that problem in 2014, when the electorate likely will be older and whiter than in 2012, and the Senate battlefield leans toward red states. But some GOP strategists are already nervous about facing the younger, more diverse electorate of 2016 with an agenda that so far could have been lifted from a Mitt Romney briefing book. “You don’t have to abandon your principles, but we just refuse to accept the new reality,” said John Weaver, the chief strategist for John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign. “If we want to go into 2016 with the same talking points … I think we are headed for a blowout election.”
While GOP intellectuals have loudly urged a rethinking since Obama’s victory, elected officials have moved more cautiously. Some shifts have occurred. Almost all Senate Republicans and about one-third of their House counterparts accepted a tax increase on high-earners during the fiscal-cliff standoff. Some Senate Republicans launched negotiations with Democrats on immigration and gun-control legislation. Eight Republican governors embraced the expansion of Medicaid in Obama’s health care law.
But lately, the GOP has snapped back toward orthodoxy. Republican state legislators in Arizona and Florida are resisting Medicaid expansion, and a leading conservative conference this week barred New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie from participating partly because he approved it. Gun-control negotiations between Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Tom Coburn, R-Okla., stalled. And while both senators say they might still reach agreement, all eight Senate Judiciary Committee Republicans on Tuesday voted against expanded background checks for gun sales—an idea that gets 90 percent support in some polls. Republicans in both chambers also signaled their intent to continue resisting implementation of the Dodd-Frank financial-reform law. The bipartisan Senate immigration talks appear on track to produce a proposal, but some House conservatives have lately amplified their opposition to providing illegal immigrants a pathway to citizenship, the linchpin of any agreement.
Likewise, on fiscal issues, Republican leaders refused to consider any tax increases, as Obama demanded, to soften the mandatory spending cuts known as the sequester. The return to familiar notes was capped this week when Ryan, as if reviving an old Broadway chestnut, unveiled a budget that dusted off House GOP proposals to convert Medicare into a premium-support, or voucher, system; to block-grant Medicaid; to repeal Obama’s health care law; to squeeze college aid; and to reduce the top marginal tax rate to its lowest level since 1931. Ryan’s only response to 2012, when Romney enthusiastically embraced his plan and lost 332 Electoral College votes, was to propose even deeper cuts in domestic spending.
Democrats predicted that Ryan’s plan will provide them tempting targets in 2014, not only in the lower chamber’s elections but also in Senate races, where at least a dozen House Republicans may seek nomination. Democratic pollster Geoff Garin argues the big difference between 2014 and the Republican romp in 2010 is that the GOP brand is now so damaged that “it has become a drag” on party nominees “even in states that are reasonably red.”
Democrats still face an uphill climb next year because the midterm electorate usually tilts toward Republican-leaning older, white voters. But Weaver and other GOP strategists worry that, as in 2010, Republicans will misread even a good midterm result as proof they are poised to compete for the broader electorate that will pick the next president.
The GOP has lost the popular vote in five of the past six presidential elections. But congressional Republicans, in pressing their agenda, are now conceding virtually nothing to the views of the majority coalition that reelected Obama, even though its key components (including minorities and the millennial generation) are virtually guaranteed to continue expanding their share of the vote. Like Romney in 2012, the GOP’s 2016 contenders may find it difficult to separate from these ideas—a dynamic demonstrated by Sen. Marco Rubio’s instant praise of the Ryan proposal.
Republicans are optimistic that their confrontations with Obama will improve their 2014 Senate prospects in states such as Alaska and South Dakota. That, however, may prove cold comfort if the price is solidifying the Democratic hold on the growing groups that anchor their presidential majority.
This article appears in the March 16, 2013, edition of National Journal as Orthodoxy’s Reign.