The Republicans' Agenda Dilemma in the 2010 Elections

If Republicans take a stand on issues, they could jeopardize their presumed return to majority status.


To be or not to be, that is the question facing Republicans. With less than 100 days remaining until the midterm congressional elections, the GOP must decide whether it's smarter in politics to merely loose slings and arrows upon embattled Democrats or to take stands on a sea of issues and risk their presumed return to majority status.

[See a slide show of 5 bad Republican policy ideas.]

There is a struggle going on within the Republican Party's strategic class. On one side are the party's political consultants, who see an embattled Democratic president and congressional majority and advocate an unceasing offensive through November. The Washington Post reported earlier this month that some of the party's most influential consultants are urging their clients to, as the paper put it, "avoid issues at all costs." Why give the Democrats a target when they are busy being hoisted upon their own policy petards?

On the other side are many current and former elected GOP leaders, like would-be Speaker John Boehner and former Speaker Newt Gingrich. Boehner plans to unveil in the fall a Contract With America-like agenda. Gingrich told the Post that the avoid-issues scheme was "mindless," adding that "consultants, in my opinion, are stupid." The editors of National Review Online were somewhat more diplomatic this week when they weighed in, favoring a clear agenda. "The consultants think Republicans risk putting targets on their backs by associating themselves with particular policy ideas," the editors wrote. "But Republicans will be targeted regardless. The White House wants to define them as mindless apostles of 'No,' and as 'Bush Republicans.'" [See who suports Boehner.]

Indeed, there is nothing the Democrats would like more than to run against George W. Bush one last time. But even if the GOP can successfully avoid carrying a scarlet W through the fall, they have other definitional problems. If not the Party of W, they are at risk of becoming the Party of Tea. National Republican leaders fought a series of primary fight skirmishes over the last few months trying to avoid nominating a slate of Tea Party favored candidates whose kooky views could jeopardize (and have) GOP opportunities in November. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has toxic poll numbers, for example, but has still opened a lead against GOP nominee Sharron Angle. She is perhaps best known for her musings about "Second Amendment remedies" for a wayward Congress. [See who donated the most to Reid's campaign.]

[Check out our editorial cartoons on the Tea Party.]

Angle and Rand Paul (and, perhaps, Ken Buck, a Tea Partyer favored to win the right to face Colorado Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet) are all challengers, but they have allies in Congress. Loopy Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann (who once called on the media to investigate "anti-American" members of Congress) recently formed a House Tea Party Caucus. The new group's ranks include Louie Gohmert of Texas (who last year said hate crimes legislation would lead to Nazism and encourage bestiality and necrophilia) and Steve King of Iowa, who last year described gay marriage as a "purely socialist concept" and recently said that President Obama "favors the black person" over the white.

There's plenty here for Democrats to define the post-Bush GOP. But the pro-agenda forces in the party have a problem as well. Even if they can hide their candidates' nuttiest views, the agenda that has started to emerge is an unappealing mix of warmed-over Bush-onomics, and "party of no" intransigence, with a dash of silly thrown in for good measure.

The GOP is desperate to avoid the Bush label—both broadly and in specific terms of reclaiming the mantle of fiscal responsibility—but their main economic policy proposal seems to be to ignite a deficit bomb by extending Bush's tax cuts, which are due to expire this year. Here's a political definition of chutzpah: Argue against $30 billion in unemployment extensions in the name of fiscal discipline while pushing for a tax cut extension that would cost $2 trillion over 10 years.