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Fresh off big electoral victories this fall, Republicans are engaged in a growing debate over the future course of the party -- To govern or oppose?
The GOP is preparing to take full control of both Houses of congress and a slew of candidates could soon launch presidential campaigns. Facing different pressures on both those fronts, Republicans have a choice:
They could start proposing detailed policies both on Capitol Hill and the campaign trail, which would give them a chance to enact their ideas, but would require some painful choices. (Like whose taxes to raise as part of an overhaul of the American tax code that would not increase the deficit.)
Or they could stick to the approach that worked in the 2014 elections: avoid offering many specific proposals of their own and make the GOP’s vision simply bashing and trying to reverse whatever President Obama does.
For now, Republicans sound divided on which approach to take.
During a trip to Washington this week, former Florida governor Jeb Bush made his position clear when he urged GOP leaders in a private meeting to use their majorities in the House and Senate to focus on developing a full-fledged conservative agenda.
Then, in a public speech that touched on his own potential presidential candidacy, Bush laid out his vision for the party. He skipped the Obama-bashing that defines most Republican rhetoric and called for increased spending on America’s infrastructure, a strategy to grant some kind of permanent status to a portion of the 11 million people who are undocumented and living in the U.S., and a “transformation” of the American education system.
The party, Bush said, needs to offer a “positive” and “uplifting” vision for the country. He said that while he opposed President Obama’s executive actions on immigration, his GOP colleagues should avoid having “their heads explode” over it.
“Republicans need to show they're not just against things, that they're for a bunch of things,” Bush told a group of corporate chief executives at an event sponsored by the Wall Street Journal. “This should be a time of incredible possibility for Republicans to be able to show what they believe,” he added.
The opposite side of the party’s internal debate was on full display later in the week when Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, without mentioning names, delivered a speech rejecting Bush’s approach in favor of more confrontation with the president and his party.
Cruz repeatedly blasted the “Obama-Clinton foreign policy,” and was the opposite of uplifting, saying “it’s almost like the whole world is on fire right now.”
The next day, Cruz called on congressional Republicans to spend much of the first few months of next year using any means necessary to force Obama to reverse his executive actions on immigration
“The incoming Senate Majority Leader should announce that if President Obama proceeds with this illegal amnesty, not a single presidential nominee, executive or judicial, will be confirmed,” Cruz said.
That Cruz and Bush, who could be presidential rivals in a few months, disagree is not surprising: Bush is the embodiment of establishment Republicans, Cruz one of the leaders of the anti-establishment movement in the party.
"[Let's] show the country what a real governing agenda looks like, that if you have the right government in place, can be effectuated as soon as possible"
Caught in-between are figures like Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan and Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, both of whom want to see Republicans pass a slew of bills over the next two years and will need to prevail over the likes of Rep. Steve King of Iowa and other conservatives in both the House and the Senate who view their role as contrarians to Obama and legislation they perceive as expanding government.
This debate is not simply about establishment Republicans versus the Tea Party. The Tea Party has largely conceded its most aggressive tactics, like last year’s government shutdown, were ineffective. Cruz emphasized this week Republicans should not try to stop government funding.
For their part, establishment Republicans have accepted, for now, that their more conservative colleagues, like Cruz, won’t accept policies like immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship for undocumented people.
And to be sure, there are many things policies Republicans agree on and will likely push both on the campaign trail and on Capitol Hill next year: the building of the Keystone XL pipeline, strong sanctions against Iran for its moves toward developing a nuclear weapon, and repealing parts of Obamacare. Party leaders, like Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, have outlined a strategy that entails both passing tax reform and free trade agreements, as Bush would like, along with holding hearings to highlight mistakes by the Obama administration, a goal of Cruz’s.
But Republicans remain engaged in the same internal conversation they have been in since 2008: What is the party’s vision on domestic policy issues like Social Security, Medicare, taxes and immigration and should they articulate those goals clearly, which could stir opposition among their own key constituencies and also provide Democrats something to run against in upcoming elections?
As one of the leading Republicans in the House during the run-up to both the elections in 2010 and 2014 and the No. 2 on the party’s ticket in 2012, Ryan has urged the GOP to detail exactly how they would cut spending on Social Security and Medicare to reduce the budget deficit. Party leaders have opted against the approach, worried it would scare off Republican-leaning senior citizens.
Rep. Dave Camp, the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, wrote a comprehensive proposal to reform America’s tax code earlier this year only to watch House Speaker John Boehner refuse to endorse the plan, which would have raised taxes on many wealthy individuals and corporations even as it simplified the tax system.
Boehner has said he wants to pass a comprehensive immigration bill, but has bowed to demands by conservatives in the House not to do that. Sen. Rand Paul, another likely presidential candidate, has several times touted ideas he feels will help the Republicans appeal to minority voters, but they have gained little traction in the rest of the party.
With Republicans now in control of the House and the Senate, Ryan is making the argument for detailed policy ideas again.
“Let's show the country what a real, thoughtful, thorough agenda of getting us off this debt crisis looks like, of faster economic growth, of a strong foreign policy national defense …. show the country what a real governing agenda looks like, that if you have the right government in place, can be effectuated as soon as possible,” he told the corporate executives, a day after they heard a similar message from Bush.
“And so, get ready to govern in '17 by giving the country an agenda in '15 and '16,” he added.
Few Republicans will say this publicly, but the counter-argument is obvious: politically, there is no indication voters are desperate to hear Republican detail or enact their policy plans. In November, the party won overwhelming in House and Senate elections through a strategy of blaming Obama for everything, from a few Americans contracting Ebola to failures in veterans’ health care. Republicans gained seats in the House of Representatives in 2014, despite not passing major legislation on entitlements, immigration or taxes, as people like Ryan have urged.
With Obama struggling to maintain popularity, the best approach for the GOP to win the White House in 2016 could be simply to tie whoever the Democratic nominee is to the president and make Obama the issue again, instead of any kind of Republican vision.
And for many in the party, the Jeb Bush version of Republicanism is exactly what they came to Washington to oppose, along with Obama. Bush’s vision of an “uplifting” conservatism sounded very similar to his brother George W.’s “compassionate conservatism,” and Jeb’s education policies are similar to the “No Child Left Behind Act” George W. Bush championed and conservatives hated.
Jeb Bush urged Republicans to say what they are “for,” but for many in the party, particularly conservatives like King and Cruz, their vision of being a Republican is being against things and dismantling what they view is government overreach, like Obamacare.
How the party reacts to Obama’s moves on immigration will be a preview of how it resolves this internal debate. The governing wing of the party wants to see Republicans pass a series of bills on immigration.
“We should respond by legislating,” Portman said, when asked his view on Obama’s immigration action.
Iowa’s Steve King, on other hand, says it’s time for another fight with Obama.
“I can look at this thing as I have all throughout the Thanksgiving break and try to conclude how anyone can step into the House or the Senate chambers January 6th and take an oath to uphold the Constitution, this oath right here, having voted to fund the president's lawless, unconstitutional act,” he said this week.
“That crosses a line. It can't be tolerated and anybody who would vote to fund it can't sincerely take this oath next January," he added.