Republicans Cannot Simply Say "No," Despite What Bill Kristol Thinks

Republican critics of the president need to offer principled alternatives.

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By Mary Kate Cary, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

Republicans voted nearly unanimously against President Obama's stimulus package, GOP governors talked of rejecting stimulus funding for their states, and as of this morning, only a single Republican—Rep. Michael Turner of Ohio—has expressed support for the president's housing legislation. How can the GOP avoid becoming, as all the pundits are calling it, The Party of No?

The Republicans need to go back to Politics 101. When a candidate is campaigning for office, the best way he or she can win over an audience is to first announce The Ends upon which we all agree—clean air, affordable housing, world-class schools, a strong economy, whatever—so that common ground is the first, not the last thing, on your agenda. You want the audience nodding in agreement with you before you even start. Who doesn't want clean air? Then, in a principled and reasonable way, you lay out how your Means to that End are the best way to get there. For example, Republicans should explain why pollution trading credits, which utilize a free-market approach to clean air, are a better way to go than command-and-control government regulation. You don't distort your opponent's means, you just point out his deficiencies and your strengths. You make a positive case for your approach, because if you truly believe in the strength of your case—and can get that across to people in a convincing way—you won't have to go negative on the other guy.

Republicans need to pick two or three principles—say, offering choice and opportunity to all Americans, relying on a free-market approach to solving problems, and ensuring fairness—and then lay out how they stand for those principles. For example, this morning's Politico explains Republican opposition to the housing bill:

The most controversial change would allow bankruptcy judges to modify mortgages for a homeowner's primary residence. Republicans, along with their allies in the lending industry, oppose the measure because it would reduce the amount of money owed on the house. These reductions will result in higher mortgage costs for all homeowners, opponents argue. Supporters of the change argue that this is the easiest way to keep people in their homes without committing taxpayer funds — a strategy that could save strapped homeowners and over-leveraged lenders alike by helping the housing market find its bottom. Either way, it's a complex issue that isn't easily explained and again raises the risk of fostering an image of the GOP as the party of no, rather than a party of competing ideas — and as a party that is hardhearted in its approach toward the nation's economic catastrophe.

If the political reality is that voters expect the government to do something to ease the housing crisis, shouldn't Republicans be espousing the solution that relies on a free-market approach, not opposing it? Yes, they should oppose big expensive government bureaucracies. But when a solution comes along that doesn't cost taxpayer money and instead gives flexibility to mortgage holders and over-leveraged lenders, they should support that.

Similarly, Bill Kristol's column in todays Washington Post has it backwards. In it, he argues that conservatives should find reasons to "obstruct and delay," to "slow down the policy train" and "try in any way possible to break Obama's momentum." Only then— after all the delay tactics—does he think conservatives can begin to argue for their policy alternatives.

I disagree. RNC Chairman Michael Steele, the GOP leaders in the House and Senate, and Republican governors should be hitting the airwaves, the blogosphere, the magazines right now. Let's hear which principles they stand for, the policies that they support to get us there, and why their ideas are superior to the President's proposals. Let them stand on their merits. Voters need to hear the power of the Republican approach—and see some positive GOP action—instead of just obstructionist maneuvering. Otherwise people will think that when it comes to the Republican agenda in the 21st century, in the words of Gertrude Stein, that there's no there, there.

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