The GOP's Dirty War

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Rep. Paul Ryan — a former speechwriter for drug czar Bill Bennet — has been hailed as the GOP's new policy wonk. "Paul Ryan is offering policy alternatives so the Republican Party isn't just a Party of No," says Frank Luntz, the strategist who advised the GOP to frame Obama's reform effort as a "Washington takeover of health care." With a hairstyle that looks like a plastic Reagan wig purchased at a novelty store, Ryan clearly aspires to be seen as a throwback to the Gipper. But the policies he's promoting are pure Dubya. Despite Wall Street's catastrophic collapse, Ryan continues to call for scrapping Social Security and replacing it with private accounts. And the 2011 budget he proposed would dismantle Medicare and provide seniors with "vouchers" that would cover only a fraction of their medical costs. "There is no new thinking there," says Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia. "The 'new' ideas are nothing but a conservative retread."

But the GOP knows that it doesn't need to inspire voters — it just needs to inspire their discontent with Democrats. And Republicans are now poised to reap the benefits of a wave of anger over the very dysfunction in Washington that they have so skillfully aggravated. Polls show that 86 percent of voters now describe the political system as "broken," and the discontent is rising fastest among rural Americans and the country's highest wage earners — sweet spots for the GOP. "A lot of people who voted for Barack Obama are gonna come to the polls in November," says Luntz. "They're not going to vote against Obama or against the Democrats. They're going to vote against Washington, and all those things that Washington represents."

To challenge vulnerable Democrats, the GOP plans to co-opt the campaign strategy that ushered Obama into the White House. First, Republicans are actively recruiting younger candidates in the Scott Brown mold, men and women in their 30s and 40s who can create what Luntz calls "a sense of a new beginning for the GOP." Second, in a throwback to 1994, the party is drafting a new Contract With America, one that echoes the calls for greater government transparency that Obama championed. According to one strategist familiar with the manifesto, the document is designed to help cast the party — tarnished by years of blatant corruption and reckless spending — as above the backroom deals that marked both the stimulus plan and health care reform.

"The GOP is in better shape now than it was in 1994 at this time," says Luntz. "That's what's incredible about what has happened. The best presidential communicator in a generation — and Obama is better than Clinton — has allowed his opponents to get back up, brush themselves off and provide an alternative vision. The Republican Party is like Jason in Friday the 13th — you can't kill it. It will not die."

If anything is going to trip up the GOP, it may be Republicans themselves. The party's own strategists worry that the alliance with the combustible Tea Party may backfire during the GOP primaries, where even Republican stalwarts like John McCain now face stiff opposition from far-right candidates who are unlikely to fare well among the general electorate. "The most important impact of the Tea Party," warns Frum, "may be to saddle the Republican Party with less-electable candidates." Even more damaging is the likelihood that the Tea Party could begin acting as a true third party, siphoning off votes from the GOP. "If we fractionalize the Republican Party," Sen. Orrin Hatch warned Tea Party activists in February, "we are going to see more liberals elected."

Others are betting that Republicans have peaked too early. The stimulus plan is finally starting to pay economic dividends, and Democrats are gearing up to hammer Republicans for opposing it from now until Election Day. Even some GOP senators believe Republicans have overplayed the obstructionist tactics that have fueled the party's resurgence. In January, Sen. George Voinovich of Ohio slammed McConnell for voting against the exact same deficit commission he had previously endorsed as the "best way" to curb federal debt. "Why is he backing off?" Voinovich asked. "If the public perceives that the Republican Party is playing political games whose main goal is to see how many more Republicans we can get in the Senate and the House, and the public interest be damned — it's going to backfire."

According to Rollins, the election of Scott Brown may actually help Democrats. "They've been woken up early," he says. With eight months to go before the midterm elections — "a lifetime in politics" — the Democrats have the largest majority in the Senate that either party has enjoyed since the 1970s. "Democrats need to ask themselves, 'What can we do with our own side?' and not worry about the other side," advises Rollins. "They've got to put something on the board."

To do that, strategists from both parties agree, Obama must stop acting like the negotiator in chief and channel his inner Dick Cheney. That means setting a clear and uncompromising agenda, and empowering his staff and Cabinet secretaries to go out and fight for it. Even within the administration, Clemons says, "nobody really knows where he's at. He's made his own views opaque. And a lot of stuff that people thought he was going to deliver on he's moved away from, tempered or put on hold."

The White House seems to have gotten the message. In January, the president ordered his former campaign czar, David Plouffe, to step up his role in the midterm elections, placing a long-overdue emphasis on grass-roots mobilizing. Obama has also decided to stop outsourcing so much responsibility to Congress. "It was clear that too often we didn't have the ball," a White House spokesman admitted recently. "In 2010, the president will constantly be doing high-profile things to be the person driving the narrative." Obama finally drafted his own version of the health care bill — one that strips the $100 million payoff for Ben Nelson — and Democrats appear ready to use a filibuster-proof process known as budget reconciliation to approve the measure with a simple majority. "We're going to pass a bill," a senior aide to the Democratic leadership predicts, "and we're going to have several months to talk about its benefits before the elections in November."

The stakes couldn't be higher. The battle in the weeks ahead will reveal what kind of president Barack Obama has it in him to become. Will he be a transformative figure like Reagan? An incrementalist like Clinton? Or a hapless one-termer like Carter? Most Americans are betting Carter: Only 44 percent say Obama deserves re-election. "Unless he can re-create momentum," says Clemons, "Democrats are looking at a bloodbath in 2010." And a whole new ballgame in 2012.

[From Issue 1100 — March 18, 2010]

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