It is not just the winter of Republican discontent. It will in all likelihood be the spring, summer and fall, as well.
The national party is leaderless and nearly issueless, but besides that, is thriving and in fine fighting trim.
It used to be that the Republicans were nasty people because they exploited “wedge issues,” which was the pejorative way to describe issues that were popular with the public but made Democrats uncomfortable. The phrase has been retired. Even if it weren’t, it’s not clear what Republican issue it would apply to anymore.
Once, taxes and national security were the party’s pillars, supplemented by domestic issues like welfare reform and crime and by symbolic issues like the Pledge of Allegiance and flag burning. Now, the pillars are in disrepair.
Cuts in income taxes don’t have the same resonance because rates are so much lower than 30 years ago. Republicans formerly had success with across-the-board tax cuts that reduced rates at the top and for everyone else. By focusing on raising rates on the top, Obama has forced them into almost exclusively defending “tax cuts for the rich.”
In theory, national security is still a Republican strength, but it doesn’t have as much resonance as in the years after Sept. 11.
The party’s premier new idea during the past few years is Medicare premium support, a worthy and creative proposal and, as it happens, an unpopular one.
The latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll has Democrats leading on: looking out for the middle class; Medicare; health care; reducing gun violence; Social Security; immigration; taxes; and the economy. The good news for Republicans is that they lead on everything else. The bad news is that everything else is only spending, the deficit and national security.
The problem with the deficit as an issue is that people care about economic growth more, and the problem with spending cuts is that people like them more in the abstract than in reality.
At times, “we have a $16 trillion debt” seems the sum total of the party’s argumentation. When party leaders say that they have to become the party of growth again, the policy they invariably advance to that end … is reducing the $16 trillion debt.
This necessary, but hardly sufficient message is almost all we hear from Republicans in Congress, where their majority in the House gives them responsibility without decisive influence. The House Republicans mainly have blocking power. Woe to the republic if they didn’t. But if you block things, you’re easily labeled an obstructionist, and wouldn’t you know it, people don’t like obstructionists.
Their only hope to deflect the nation from its profligate budgetary path is confrontations coinciding with key fiscal inflection points, like the March 1 deadline for the sequester. They always ride into these fights badly outgunned.
The John McCain ad dubbing Barack Obama the biggest celebrity in the world back in 2008 was accurate. What Republicans didn’t consider is that being a celebrity is a priceless asset in contemporary America. Two hundred and thirty members of the House don’t have a chance against a president, let alone a celebrity-president.
This won’t change soon. It is too early to have a presidential candidate or even a presidential field, so the GOP lacks a head and therefore a unified voice.
Of course, it wasn’t long ago that Democrats seemed to be in dire straits. The party agonized over appealing to “values voters” after 2004. Little did they know that eight years later, they would run a successful re-election campaign on limitless abortion and free contraception. The Bush-era Democrats benefited from serial Republican debacles, from Jack Abramoff to the financial crisis.
Events will again take a hand, as they always do. And since last fall’s election, top Republicans from Bobby Jindal to Marco Rubio have been talking about a more bread-and-butter economic agenda. Fleshing that out, though, is a longer-term proposition. In the meantime, Republicans should prepare themselves for more discontent.
Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.