Obama Won't Save Republicans in November

Republicans hope President Barack Obama's unpopularity will let them coast to victory in November. This is a big mistake.
Now, the "Contract with America," that was an agenda.

What does it mean for a candidate or party to run on an agenda -- a list of priorities and policies they intend to pursue in office -- and how important is it?

I argued here that Republicans are relying on the president's unpopularity as a substitute for an agenda, and that the last time they tried that, in 1998, it ended badly.

Two other writers have also recently taken up these questions, in ways that reinforce my view that Republicans would be better off if they outlined what they plan to do after the elections in November.

My Bloomberg View colleague Jonathan Bernstein says that the Republicans of 1998 were, in fact, running on an agenda: impeaching Bill Clinton over lying about his affair with Monica Lewinsky. Whatever their ads said, he argues, they were engaged in impeachment and voters were bound to respond to their actions rather than their spin.

Matt Lewis, of the Daily Caller, advanced several arguments against running on an agenda. It's not necessary, as Democrats showed when they won a congressional landslide in 2006 without one. It may even be harmful, because an agenda can be a target. And with Republicans divided on everything from tax reform to foreign policy, what would the agenda be? Better to wait for someone to win the presidential nomination and then set an agenda.

I don't think Bernstein is right about 1998. That year, the House hadn't taken much action on impeachment by election time. It had voted to begin an inquiry, true, with the support of 31 Democrats. But the effort hadn't gone very far, and once the Republicans were defeated it was widely expected that they would abandon it. Nor was the talk of impeachment so loud that it was all voters could hear. In exit polls, it ranked last among their priorities, and most people said their votes weren't cast in support of Clinton or in opposition to him.

But the reason I brought up 1998 in the first place was to make a point about what Republicans should be saying this year. My unprovable suspicion is that they would've been better off in 1998 if they had either made the case for impeachment or said they were going to pursue tax cuts and missile defense and made the case for that. Instead, they didn't try to make the case for anything -- they just counted on the president's unpopularity.

That's what Lewis claims the Democrats did in 2006. But those Democrats did present an agenda: They wanted to raise the minimum wage, end the Iraq War, fund stem-cell research, expand the federal-state health program for kids and so on. It's true that this agenda probably wasn't at the forefront of voters' minds. For most people the election ended up being a referendum on Republican rule. But talking about an agenda contributed to the perception that Democrats would do better than those dismal Republicans -- that they weren't tired, or corrupt, or out-of-touch. The positive reinforced the negative; an agenda complemented a critique.

An agenda can also have value beyond the election. It can make it easier to assemble legislative majorities after the victory, to figure out what votes to schedule, and to give the party's presidential candidates something to run on. Without the "Contract with America," in 1994, House Republicans wouldn't have known how to spend their first months in office after their landslide victory. For Democrats, the 2006 race helped clarify the 2008 primaries: The party was unified on policy, and the question became who would be most likely to see that agenda through, the veteran pragmatist or Mr. Hope-and-Change.

To get back to this year: I suspect that Republicans would do better if they embraced a health-care plan like the one proposed by Senator Tom Coburn and others. An actual plan would reassure conservatives of their commitment to getting rid of Obama's health-care law, and it would offer an answer to Democrats who say that doing so would take away people's insurance. There would be criticisms of the plan, of course, but it's hard to believe that the cost of those criticisms would exceed the costs of having no plan at all.

Lewis's notion that an agenda is a target is widespread among Republicans. That's why they're not offering one. This isn't a healthy instinct in general. Follow this line of thinking too far, and you'll never try to accomplish anything. Which raises the question of what the point of winning those elections is in the first place.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

    To contact the author on this story:
    Ramesh Ponnuru at rponnuru@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor on this story:
    Timothy Lavin at tlavin1@bloomberg.net

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