Republicans Struggle With Long-Term Vision

Posted May 20, 2009 at 6:42pm

Scuttling the White House plan to close the Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, prison facility was a major victory for Republicans this week, but the party’s Capitol Hill leaders acknowledge they are still struggling to chart a course forward, caught between the daily demand to push back against Democrats and the need for a long-range vision.

While Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has sought a patient, long-term approach, House Republicans have focused on the more immediate concerns of day-to-day combat.

A House leadership aide explained that the differences between the two chambers require the two leadership teams to take different approaches. While McConnell can be more measured, House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) is more “bombastic— because of his Conference’s far more conservative makeup, this source said.

The majority’s dominance of the House floor also forces Boehner and other leaders into a more defensive position, often reacting to what the White House or Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is pursuing.

“If the White House is talking climate, [House Republicans] have to as well, because you know there’s going to be a bill on the floor,— a Senate GOP leadership aide noted.

Ron Bonjean, a former GOP leadership staffer in both the the House and Senate, downplayed any dissonance between Republicans in the two chambers, arguing that the different approaches are an advantage and play well into each other.

“What you have is a complimentary approach: an idea lab coming out of the House and a solid rifle shot messaging campaign that is succeeding in the Senate,— Bonjean said.

“While House Republicans can’t stop things, they can offer alternative solutions that every Republican can use,— he said.

House Republicans currently have seven “solutions groups— working in tandem to craft policies and legislation on everything from energy to health care to counter those introduced by Democrats.

Leaders of the groups say they are critical to show voters that the GOP has better ideas than their Democratic colleagues. But some Members have expressed confusion with the proliferation of task forces and privately joke that there is a working group for everything.

“It’s mostly confusing,— said one Member, who asked not to be named. “But it’s partially practical. When you have nothing else to do, you should hone your policy ideas.—

Chief Deputy Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said the Members responsible for leading the working groups are closely coordinating and regularly update each other and elected leadership on their progress.

One of the most recent and public curiosities among rank-and-file members is the National Council for a New America. Spearheaded by House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.), the effort aims to bring House and Senate leaders together with former and current state officials in order to reach out to voters around the country through a series of high-profile townhall-style meetings.

“Part of the idea of the other groups [such as the NCNA] is to get the message out,— McCarthy said.

But while Republican leaders in the House and Senate have endorsed the group, few beyond Cantor have even mentioned the national council since its launch earlier this month, and Senate Republicans privately said there is little chance any of their leaders will participate.

Senate Republican leaders have not been involved in any of the logistics, setting the agenda or other issues regarding Cantor’s group, these sources said.

Spokesman Brad Dayspring defended Cantor’s decision to put the group together and said Cantor has kept other members in the loop on its development.

“Mr. Cantor has taken seriously his role to get NCNA off the ground smoothly. We continue to try to maintain regular communication with Members and staff as we go through the organizing and planning process,— Dayspring said.

But several Republicans cautioned that while Republican leaders are generally supportive of Cantor’s efforts, their backing is more of a courtesy to their colleague. “It’s Cantor’s deal,— one Republican said, who argued that if he wants the listening sessions to be effective, Cantor should drop the emphasis on national media.

“Instead of trying to get national media, if he really wants to do real listening sessions, he should just do them,— this Republican said, who asked for anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the issue.

Senate Republicans said the leadership teams in both chambers communicate regularly and have looked to coordinate on a number of key issues, including the stimulus bill, budget and Guantánamo.

Unlike their counterparts in the House — where the two-year election cycle drives Members to focus on controlling every news cycle — McConnell, Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) and Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) have all sought to take a longer view, commensurate with the six-year terms of Senators.

According to GOP aides, McConnell believes the party is likely still years away from making its way back to the top of Washington’s political pile. Rather, Senate Republicans said leaders should take a much broader view of the rebuilding process, avoiding the temptation to focus on reacting to the White House every day and recognize that they need to put together a string of small successes if they are going to rehabilitate their brand.

One aide points to the budget debate as a prime example, noting that when the White House announced $100 million in proposed budget cuts, the plan initially received positive media attention. Subsequent stories highlighting Republican complaints that it did virtually nothing to cut back on a trillion-dollar budget got much less attention. “They get a front-page story on how the president wants to cut $100 million, and people think, OK, that’s a good idea.’ Then the next day, [Republicans] got a story on [page] A6 on how it’s ridiculous. Which no one is ever going to read,— the aide explained.

House and Senate Republicans have, however, enjoyed some successes, most recently with their push on the White House’s plan to close the prison at Guantánamo Bay.

McConnell and Boehner in late March agreed to make the issue a top messaging priority through the Memorial Day recess, and McConnell marshalled his members, using the Senate floor on an almost daily basis to make the case that the White House should not be given funds to close the prison until a plan for relocating terrorists was developed.

By keeping their message narrowly focused, McConnell and Boehner were able to get buy-in from all of their Members, and ultimately forced House and Senate Democrats to abandon the White House’s position. McConnell and others hope to use this sort of long-term strategy “as a template to build on— in the future, a GOP leadership aide said.

McConnell’s legacy may end up being that “during an extraordinarily difficult time, he didn’t screw anything up and kept his Conference unified, which is no small feat,— a veteran GOP operative said.