The latest round of the budget and debt-ceiling fight went decidedly to the Democrats. While there’s a certain “pox on both their houses” aspect to the fallout from the government shutdown, Republicans clearly absorbed a bigger hit in public opinion. And the episode bitterly divided established conservatives and the tea party wing of the GOP.
To repair the rift and the party’s standing with voters, and to be better positioned for the next round in early 2014, congressional Republicans should look to the states. Republican governors and state legislators have figured out how to talk in terms of benefits instead of process, and that positive rhetoric is more appealing than negative. These state Republicans are enjoying remarkable approval ratings, and they’re getting things done.
Those state successes seem far removed from the logjam in Washington. But there’s no reason Washington can’t learn from them.
I worked on Capitol Hill during the confrontations between House Speaker Newt Gingrich and President Bill Clinton. And I served in the White House during the confrontations between President George W. Bush and Speaker Nancy Pelosi. So I understand what happens, at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, when one party has control of Congress and the other the presidency.
House and Senate Republicans are nearly always in the position of talking about what they’re against — what they want to block or repeal or defund. Those are process arguments. And they tend to be negative.
Like many conservatives, I often feel angry and frustrated that more Americans aren’t more angry and frustrated. But while expressing anger and frustration resonates with core voters who already agree with us, it doesn’t do much for independents who are worried about themselves and their families, and pessimistic about the country’s future. They want to hear optimism. They want to hear how political leaders will improve their lives.
Congressional Republicans are absolutely right to oppose President Obama’s harmful policies. But they’d be better off if they spent less time talking about process and more time speaking in positive and tangible terms about what they support and how they’ll help — as state Republican leaders do.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker recently put it this way: “We talk in terms that are more relevant. Give you a good example: sequesters. Most people, that goes right over their head. Debt ceilings, fiscal cliffs. We talk about making our kids’ schools better. We talk about balancing our budgets so we can live within our means. We talk about helping our neighbor get a job again.”
At the national level, instead of leading with defunding or repealing Obamacare, Republicans should put the emphasis on how they want to protect people with preexisting conditions, hold down premiums and let people truly keep the health insurance they have if they like it.
On energy, rather than describing an abstract debate about the Keystone XL pipeline, Republicans should tell their constituents that they want to help lower gas prices, reduce home-heating costs, create more high-paying American jobs and diminish reliance on foreign sources of energy.
On education, rather than only complaining about teachers unions, Republicans should try to sound like New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez, who took this plea to her legislature:
“We know that only 63 percent of our students are graduating within four years. Sixty-seven children drop out each and every school day. Those dropping out are not statistics — they are our children. They were once little boys and little girls who believed they could one day fly a spaceship to the moon, who once saw themselves becoming a doctor, or firefighter, or scientist, or whatever they dreamt they could be. But somewhere along the line, the system failed them. They lost hope and they dropped out, dashing those dreams. We have an obligation to focus on raising our graduation rate and better prepare our high school students for New Mexico’s workforce or for college.”
In some cases, Republican policies that are successful at the state level could be templates for federal policies. At a minimum, they prove that federal lawmakers should encourage greater policy experimentation in the states, and they demonstrate the positive impact that GOP policies can have on people’s lives.
Democrats talk far more than Republicans do about lifting people out of poverty, expanding the middle class and addressing income inequality. Yet it’s Republican policies that actually do those things. GOP governors such as Ohio’s John Kasich and New Jersey’s Chris Christie are vocal about helping those who have the least in their states, but in Washington, with few exceptions — Paul Ryan among them — Republicans too rarely invoke helping the poor as a rationale for our policies.
If congressional Republicans talked more about what’s happening in the states, they might encourage more minorities, women and new voters to think about voting Republican.
And if both established conservatives and tea party Republicans in Washington sounded more like the people who have been elected to serve in our state capitals, focusing on quality-of-life arguments rather than process arguments, they could end up in a better spot in the next round of the fiscal fight.
Ed Gillespie is a communications strategist and chairman of the Republican State Leadership Committee. He was a counselor to President George W. Bush, and he chaired the Republican National Committee from 2003 to 2004.