GOP has to compete on ideas

1994 was a huge year for Republicans. After 40 years of Democratic House majorities, the Newt Gingrich-led House GOP won control of that chamber. Since then, Republicans have maintained their majority for all but four years.

More than any other factor, the victory was due to a natural voter backlash against Bill Clinton’s troubled first two years as president. Rejection of the Clintons’ health care reform effort was a big part of that.

While voting against Clinton was the largest motivator, Republicans were wise to also give voters something to vote for. Gingrich’s insistence on a “Contract With America” paid off. It showed voters that the GOP had a positive, reform-focused agenda, and that Congressional Republicans would enact laws to clean up Congress’s worst abuses.

Ideas conspicuously lacking
At several junctures since 1994, pundits and prognosticators have called on the GOP to offer a new Contract. The advice has usually come across as a tad trite, but the overall point is a good one: Republicans have to offer a positive agenda.

Opposing the Democratic agenda is good enough for many Republican voters, but as a national party that wants to win national elections, Republicans need to attract voters who don’t see things solely through an oppositional lens. Merely saying “stop Obamacare” doesn’t do it for them.

Congressional Republicans in the Obama era have not succeeded at this. Six years after Obamacare passed, there is still no official Republican alternative. Some individuals have offered solid plans, but at no point has the party coalesced around a plan or two and said “this is what we support instead.” The criticisms over this obvious problem have landed because they’re true.

Paul Ryan offers new reform agenda
House Speaker Paul Ryan is an unabashed policy wonk. Some people see this as his weakness, praising the “gut politics” of Donald Trump (while continually overlooking all the flip-flops, inconsistencies, and flat-out lies he proffers) over anything favored by “reformicons” like Ryan. But even those who like Trump should see the value of having thoughtful nuts-and-bolts leaders like Speaker Ryan on their side.

Ryan knows that a party bereft of ideas can quickly lose its mooring. You could argue that’s exactly what’s happening in the Republican Party today. He aims to change that by offering solid legislation to improve the lives of everyday Americans.

That starts with statements of overarching principles. His new better.gop website, which House Republicans are rolling out this week, offers policy principles and specific plans for tackling major issues. This is precisely what the national party needs today.

Appropriately enough, the first subject tackled is poverty. The GOP cannot afford to continue acting like poverty is not a topic it needs to deal with. By taking on this subject first, Ryan is showing that, as with welfare reform in the ‘90s, this is a policy area on which Republicans can lead. (For a great take on what conservatives can do to ameliorate poverty and how to properly communicate our ideas, give Arthur C. Brooks’s The Conservative Heart a read).

I’ll be watching better.gop over the coming weeks to see what else Ryan & Co. propose. The mere fact that they’re trying to communicate these ideas directly and simply is already an improvement over recent years.
-Rob McKenna

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Rob McKenna
Rob served two terms as Washington’s Attorney General, from 2005 to 2013. He successfully argued three cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and negotiated three of the largest consumer financial protection settlements in national history, all involving mortgage lending and servicing. He is a recognized leader in the development of consumer protections on the internet, in data protection and privacy regulation.