The GOP Needs Family Counseling

There’s nothing Democrats and the press enjoy more than Republicans fighting Republicans.

Rep. John Boehner and Sen. Mitch McConnell on Capitol Hill.

Family gatherings are a time for reminiscing. So as House and Senate Republicans join this week for a retreat in this chocolate haven, let’s take a trip down memory lane.

The date is December 2011. Washington is debating under a year-end deadline how, not if, to extend the payroll tax holiday. John Boehner ’s House passes a one-year extension, paid for by spending cuts. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell negotiates a deal with Democrats for a two-month extension, paid for with higher fees on some mortgage lenders. It passes the Senate with 89 votes, including all but seven Republicans.

The House revolts. Mr. Boehner opposes the McConnell plan, and his members vote down the Senate bill. Senate GOP aides complain, anonymously, to the press that Mr. Boehner blessed their deal and changed his mind. House GOP aides complain, anonymously, to the press that Mr. Boehner did not. The Republican caucus draws into a circular firing squad. Democrats gleefully accuse Republicans of “raising taxes on the middle class.” Several days of self-immolation later, the House approves the two-month extension it rejected days earlier.

l.wsjSuch memories aren’t pleasant, but there are many. Watching the GOP these past years has been at times like sitting through a bad family car ride. House Republicans fight with each other. (Mom, he’s hitting me! Stop hitting me!) Senate Republicans fight with House Republicans. (Mom, I hate her music! Change the station!)

Messrs. McConnell and Boehner too frequently were on opposite pages or changing pages or, worse, were on no page at all, leaving their members to fill the void. (Are we there yet? Are we?)

The joint retreat—the first one in a decade—is meant to seek greater unity and coordination. The good news is that much of the Republican Congress seems to recognize the need.

Over the past four years far too much of the GOP’s positive message was overshadowed by endless stories of Republican division and infighting. Democrats relied on those squabbles to bury Republican themes, especially as there is nothing the press loves to cover more than a GOP dust-up—real or imagined.

The party prevailed in the midterms despite that ugliness, and in part because it put a lot of the focus on Harry Reid ’s obstructionist Democratic Senate. But now that the GOP owns Congress, the unity stakes are much higher. There is arguably no greater damage the GOP could do to itself, its brand, and its 2016 presidential prospects than to spend two years displaying Republican dysfunction.

One early and simple test: Will the big, conservative House majority take into consideration the reality of a narrower, more constrained Republican Senate? Doing so means applying a baseline test to any bill the House considers sending along: Will its legislation earn the support of nearly all Republican senators? If not, the House is inviting stories about how Republicans can’t agree with Republicans.

Another test: Can members recognize the difference between debate and discord? Discussion and argument are good and make for a healthier conservative movement. But after deliberation and a majority of the party settles on a policy or reform, will the minority gracefully find a way to get to yes? Grandstanding is tempting, but members might remember that there is strength in numbers—against the press, against Democrats and against grumpy radio talk-show hosts.

Republicans are good about meeting in subgroups within their own chambers, but the lack of communication and understanding between the two chambers is outright startling. An early indicator of whether Messrs. Boehner and McConnell care about party bonhomie will be whether they encourage some formal process by which Senate and House Republicans convene. The members themselves also have an obligation to remedy this, by actively reaching out to elected brethren across the Capitol.

Finally, and perhaps most important, look to see if leadership has a plan—and not just for next week, but for five months from now. Too many recent Republican brawls stemmed directly from a vacuum at the top. Messrs. Boehner and McConnell owe it to their caucuses to listen and be responsive to good ideas, but also to make timely decisions and let everyone know the plan, the marketing and the message.

Everybody already knows what’s coming. There is no real excuse why Republican leaders aren’t already crafting a legislative and message response for the Supreme Court’s upcoming ruling on ObamaCare subsidies; or finishing a plan to outflank President Obama on immigration; or honing a final strategy for tax reform. They ought to be getting members on board.

Every minute Republicans spend fighting with each other is one less minute they spend fighting against the liberal agenda they claim to oppose. They only win when they are pulling on the same oar.

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