For all the encouragement that Republicans took from the angry health-care town halls of August, the fall has not been kind to the GOP. A Washington Post-ABC poll found that only 1 in 5 voters now identifies as Republican. And the “Party of No” label might be starting to stick: a recent CNN poll found that GOP favorability has slipped to its lowest point in a decade just 36% . Former Republican heavyweights such as Bob Dole and Bill Frist have been pushing current party leaders on Capitol Hill to work with Democrats on health-care reform, which increasingly looks like it will pass in some form. And even a few of their own have begun to show impatience. “Ronald Reagan always had a positive, forward-looking agenda, and I think that was a significant strategy that worked for the Republicans back then,” says Dana Rohrabacher, a Republican Representative from California. “We’ve got some very tangible alternatives. I just think we should just be promoting them more. Too much politics, not enough policy.”
Eric Cantor, the No. 2 House Republican, hopes to change all that. In an effort to counter the criticism that the party doesn’t stand for anything but opposing President Obama, Cantor has reconvened the working group that came up with the GOP’s alternative to the White House’s stimulus plan. That wasn’t exactly a big success the proposal was widely panned for relying too heavily on tax cuts but Cantor is convinced that taking the long view is the path to success: health care and global warming may be the topics du jour, but “the narrative next year leading into the election, will be all about the economy. It’ll be about jobs, it’ll be about people’s economic security,” he insists, leaning back on the couch in his third-floor Capitol office. So the group has been looking at areas of the economy that they claim Democrats are ignoring. “I’m under no illusions that the policy proposals being developed here by this group will be accepted by [House Speaker Nancy] Pelosi because they’re not,” Cantor says with a laugh. “But I do think with an eye toward 2010 that we do have to commit ourselves to the challenges that are not being addressed.”
Thus far they have identified four key areas in which they believe their opponents are vulnerable: the ongoing credit crunch in the commercial real estate market, the looming costs of unemployment tax increases on states and businesses, the massive budget deficits and what Cantor calls an uncertain environment that Obama’s ambitious agenda on health care, financial reform and climate change is creating for the business community. Cantor admits the group has yet to come up with any solutions, but they are meeting over the next few months to hear from experts and to hammer out concrete proposals. The method is similar to the process Pelosi went through in crafting her highly successful Six for ’06 campaign that helped the Democrats retake control of the House, involving six core Democratic issues that she pledged to push legislation on if elected. Cantor’s scheme also shares some DNA with the 1994 Contract with America that helped Republicans win the House. “The essentials are the same: these are the issues that are impacting Middle America that are being ignored by the majority, and if you elect us, they won’t be left out,” says Dick Armey, a former Republican House majority leader.
On the other hand, very little of the Contract with America ever made it into law. And Cantor’s four issues are hardly the sweeping small-government manifesto that the Contract with America embodied. The Virginia Representative is starting small, searching out building blocks on which all Republicans moderate and conservative can agree. For example, Cantor notes that state unemployment burdens are expected to double from $30 billion in 2009 to more than $60 billion in 2012, resulting in what he says will be a doubling of business taxes from $250 to $500 per worker per year by 2012. “Eric’s correct, in my opinion, to place an emphasis on trying to make our nation more competitive and prop up the private market a place which has been kind of under assault the last year or so,” says John Feehery, a GOP strategist and former adviser to House Speaker Dennis Hastert. “He’s obviously geared toward the small-business sector. The big guys can handle a high unemployment rate, but the small guys get killed by it, so that’s a good thing getting back to Republican roots.” Still, fixing these holes is going to require money that will have to be drawn from somewhere else. When asked about how he will pay for any initiatives, Cantor is quick to point out that the group is in a nascent stage: “We’ve identified the problems. And now we intend to bring in experts and look at solutions.”
Though midterm elections tend to be referendums about the party in power, Republicans know that if they have any shot at regaining the majority, they have to give voters a reason to pull the lever for them. Most observers who track congressional races predict Democratic losses of 20 seats or more, and the latest generic matchups by Rasmussen polls show Republicans leading Democrats 42% to 38%. Still, Democrats control the House by a margin of 40 seats, so taking back the House would require a pretty major wave of discontent over the next year. And while polls show that Americans are first and foremost concerned with their jobs, making the case on obscure policy fronts such as the commercial real estate market, where lending has lagged behind the residential market could be tough, says Jim Thurber, head of American University’s Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies. “To make those cases is going to be very hard,” Thurber says. “Even in terms of deficit and debt and we are in trouble on that front it’s very hard to get people excited about that in America. Candidates have tried it for years; it’s a hard issue to get people to focus on.”
Cantor surely knows this, which is why he’s still busy working at overhauling the GOP’s Party of No image. When asked if House Republicans will be unified in their opposition to the health-care bill, he instead focuses on all the areas in which Republicans and Democrats agree, such as emphasizing preventive medicine, electronic records, medical-liability reform and helping those with pre-existing conditions get coverage. It’s a striking change of tone from a similar interview with TIME shortly before the stimulus vote, when the minority whip was cocky in his boast of unified opposition. Still, says Feehery, if Cantor were really serious, he would introduce a comprehensive GOP health-care-reform alternative, as some Republicans have been urging their leaders to do.
“The GOP approach through the first eight Obama months of seeking to get unanimous opposition to everything he was doing on the economy and health care established the image of the Party of No,” says Norm Ornstein, a congressional scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. “It will take some time to revamp the image into a Party of Ideas. And if the Republicans continue to try to get unanimous or near unanimous opposition to all Obama domestic initiatives, it will be harder to overcome the negative stereotype.”
Newt Gingrich, author of the Contract with America, says the GOP must transform itself from the Party of No to the Party of Alternatives. Cantor’s group has a long way to go like finding actual solutions but his is at least a first step in finding some common ground for the party. “We really have to regain the image of being an inclusive party and tolerant of a lot of debate,” Cantor says. “So I will continue to reach out and to work to develop policies that reflect a vision that can appeal to people on the right, in the middle and hopefully like-minded Democrats on the left. That’s how you go about forming a governing coalition again.”
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