After sweeping victories in the 2014 midterm elections, congressional Republicans find themselves in the curious position of being expected to provide leadership and vision for the country, at least for the next two years. This is traditionally the role of the executive who, with an unrivaled bully pulpit, can instantly command the nation’s attention and compel even the most disengaged citizen to stop for a moment and pay attention to politics.
President Obama has largely abdicated that role and has created a vacuum of leadership into which the national media has injected their hissing calls for the Republicans to show leadership, to work together with Democrats, to break the gridlock and to present an agenda to the American people. The same demands were never made of Senator Harry Reid or President Obama.
The latest NBC/Wall Street Journal poll indicates (by a 23-point margin) that the public would rather see the Republican Congress–NOT the president–lead the way on policy. This sentiment was resounding confirmed by voters at the ballot box earlier in November, and yet the Republican leadership in both houses of Congress seems to be equivocating. The GOP appears to be listening to the very media which discredits the party and its ideas at every turn, and in doing so is ignoring the majority of American voters who said, with one resounding voice, “NO” to President Obama and the Democrats’ agenda.
Any good negotiator leaves all options on the table. In reference to curtailing President Obama’s executive action on immigration, Republican leaders have taken spending curtailment off the table, and one can’t even mention the “I-word” within a block of John Boehner’s office. Whether they like it or not, these are the tools available to the legislature to curtail an executive who is abusing his or her power. It is what the founders intended.
The next few weeks and months may witness the final descent of American political discourse–what’s left of it–into pandemonium. And the cycle, which seems to have been set on cruise control since the contested 2000 election, will continue although at a new, fevered and constitutionally-threatening pitch.
There are a few things that Republicans can do to break out of this cycle. Gimmicky stunts, like sending bills somewhat limited in scope and in their impact on the average citizen to the president once a week won’t work. The concept behind public relations campaigns such as this is to put the president on record and to influence the public’s perception of President Obama, not the Congress, as the obstructing party. The problem with this approach is that it relies on an unbiased media to report on the bills and to aggressively question both sides of the argument. This will not happen in the current political environment.
The answer may not be found in Washington.
Instead, as many times before, Republicans ought to turn to the states for the answer to their political and governing woes. In Massachusetts, Maryland, and Illinois, the voters have elected pragmatic Republicans to governorships to fix what ails those very deep blue states. This has happened periodically in blue states like New York (Governor George Pataki had an unremarkable 12 years in office and presided over ballooning budgets and ever-increasing taxes), but core conservative principles never seem to take root.
It might benefit the Republican Party to adopt a two-step solution to engaging the American voter and speaking directly to them, rather than through the filter of the national media. The best place to do this is in the states, not from Washington.
First, each of these newly elected governors (and the rest of the sitting governors, too) should open citizen engagement offices in their states’ largest cities. Republicans must fearlessly go where the need for good government is the greatest and that is in the minority neighborhoods of our largest cities. Roxbury in Boston, Baltimore, the south side of Chicago, and Detroit all share one thing in common: all of these cities have, under liberal leadership, languished under the harsh tyranny of good intentions for 75 years.
It is time to engage the citizens where they are and to do that, these governors must govern from those places. Shun the oak-paneled office in the state capitol; hire a bunch of youthful, energetic aides; and govern, hold press conferences, eat lunch, and hold meetings in these places. Be authentic. Run local political shops where, to borrow a phrase from the Salvation Army, the “most good” can be done. This may seem as gimmicky as “a bill a week,” but it will humble our public servants and call attention to those in the greatest need. The media cannot argue with the results this type of engagement will produce especially if these engagement offices stay open and vibrant long after the media’s cameras go away after the ribbon cutting ceremony to open them is over.
Secondly, we have to engage citizens to do more than merely vote. In an election cycle in which hundreds of millions of dollars were spent by conservative-leaning PACs on individual candidates’ races, for example, wouldn’t it make sense to encourage some of these PACs or their donors to earmark 5% of what they contributed in this cycle to establishing journalism scholarships for conservative-minded graduate students? Perhaps the evil Koch brothers, who are known for their philanthropy but are reviled by the left for their politics, can spearhead a separate effort on this front.
In either case, there is little to gain from the tedious recitation of media biases made by Sean Hannity or the cast of “The Five” on a daily basis. Most reasonable people admit a media bias, and unlike man-made global warming there is plenty of data to support these assertions. The long view on this issue–broadening the base and engaging the average voter–dictates a need for training journalists who might offer an alternative view in the formative journalism classrooms of the country and, eventually, the newsrooms of America’s media outlets. Eventually, fair and even-handed media portrayals of both parties will become the norm.
Some in the party, such as Senator Rand Paul, have been working tirelessly to expand the tent and welcome in traditionally Democrat voters: urbanites, minorities, and youth. His efforts should not go unnoticed, for there is something authentic about his work as it is done quietly, consistently, and boldly.
Senator Paul, like President Reagan before him, knows that the solution to the party’s political and governing woes is quite simple: speak directly to the American citizen in a way that they can understand and appreciate it. Meet the voter where they are, and expect our shepherds to walk with some of the stink of sheep on their clothes. This approach may not bear fruit in the first few elections cycles and instead may take many years of toil in the vineyard for this particular vintage to be harvested. The Republican Party, and the country, will be better for it.