It's looking increasingly likely that the GOP will take control of the Senate. The New York Times' model gives Republicans a 65 percent chance of gaining a majority and Five Thirty Eight is giving them a 62 percent shot. "Midterm momentum belongs to GOP" says The Washington Post, whose latest poll with ABC News finds that even Hispanics, often the target of Republican immigrant-bashing, are up for the change.
So what might Republicans actually do if they have majorities in both houses of Congress? If past behavior is any indication of future performance, the short and likely answer is: screw it all up. The Wash Post's "Right Turn" blogger Jennifer Rubin offers up advice, much of which makes sense. She says the GOP should think about legislation as belonging to one of two piles. The first is stuff that "enjoys bipartisan support." The second includes things "the GOP cannot accomplish without the White House." For the latter, she says, Republicans should take their case to the public and force President Obama to 'splain why he's dragging his heels. In all cases, says Rubin:
Bills should follow some basic criteria: 1. The principle purpose is reform, not penny pinching; 2. The lower or middle class benefits; and 3. If the welfare state bureaucracy is doing something poorly (e.g. Obamacare, food stamps) replace it with something better. That leaves the field wide-open for welfare reform, full-blown tax reform, regulatory reform, and an Obamacare alternative. Legislation may include a more decentralized solution in which the feds take a more supportive role (e.g. funding) but states construct programs.
That all sounds pretty good. But of course we know what Republicans and conservatives really want to do is spend lots of money on stuff that favors their constituencies and ideological fixations. So that means:
What Republicans can't do is spend their time trying to chop chunks of government, obsess on the spending side, cut holes in the safety net, perpetuate cronyism or let paranoia gut anti-terror measures (e.g. drones, NSA). Senate gadflies are about to learn that being in the majority is far different than throwing spitballs from the minority. They will need to show they can problem-solve (or they will confirm concerns that they cannot).
I agree with Rubin that this election is not about Americans being suddenly dazzled by Republican proposals. People are fed up with Obama, whose signature legislative accomplishments either didn't work as advertised (the stimulus) or remain genuinely unpopular (Obamacare). "Voters are looking for executive competence," writes Rubin, "something the Congress can affect only indirectly through oversight and the budget." She warns that Republicans "misread public opinion at their own peril."
True, true. But so do Washington Post bloggers. First and foremost, it's clear that Americans want Congress to do its job and actually vote on a war declaration regarding the current adventures in Iraq and Syria. According to the latest Reason-Rupe Poll, fully 78 percent of us want to see that. And don't mistake the recent post-beheading spike of support for action against ISIS as a long-term shift. The Reason-Rupe Poll found that 52 percent of Americans are against ground troops fighting in the Middle East. Tellingly, the poll also found that more people today claim to have supported opposed the 2003 invasion of Iraq than actually did at the time. We're a nation of summer soldiers, it turns out.
The Republicans would in fact do well to "obsess on the spending side." Rubin is probably right that it's not a winning political strategy to start calling for an end to the Department of Commerce, but the GOP should absolutely make the case that spending and debt is a real issue and that we need to get by with less of both. Had the GOP in the past actually started cutting corporate welfare first and social welfare second, they would have confounded expectations and won some plaudits from libertarians as well as fiscally serious independents and Democrats. But when you cut food stamps without targeting farm subsidies, the jig is up. A Republican Congress could kill the Export-Import Bank (a corporate welfare institution that is supported by such progressive Democrats as Sen. Elizabeth Warren) as an opening salvo.
If the GOP is interested in hitting on specific measures that enjoy broad majorities of approval, it would do well to follow Rand Paul's lead in pushing on sentencing reform and other criminal justice fixes. Polls routinely show 75 percent and more of voters believing in such things. Given that such measures would disproportionately affect minorities, they would also help recast the Party of Lincoln as something other than a good old boys' club too.
If the Republicans are interested in catching some spark with millennials, they would also do well to push social issues (including immigration) off their near-term agenda. The GOP pulls poorly among 18-29 year olds, with just 23 percent of millennials self-identifying as Republicans. The Reason-Rupe Millennials Poll released over the summer strongly suggests taking a break from freaking out over gay marriage and pot legalization. Millennials support both and Republicans are generally against them. Yet the Republicans could also tell a story about economic policy that might resonate with younger Americans. Large majorities of millennials believe that government is too big and regulates too much; that cutting taxes would help the economy; and that cutting spending by 5 percent would help the economy. Younger Americans are worried about state surveillance and tend to be anti-war too.
The GOP would be wise to think through its approach to foreign policy. George W. Bush left office with record-low approval ratings. Obama may well set new lows. While both presidents have done poorly economically, both have followed a largely interventionist, largely disastrous foreign policy. It's not tough to outline a defense strategy that protects Americans without breaking the bank or coming to the aid of every country in the world which nonethless votes to kick us out after a decade of occupation (such as Iraq). An engaged America needn't be an American that spends itself to the poorhouse on the military.
If the Republican majority actually laid out policies that fell into line with all that while explaining a theory of limiting government and increasing individual freedom, they might just win over people who worry (not without reasons) that the GOP is simply a socially reactionary party that wants to cut spending on the poor but lard it up on wealthy people and the military-industrial complex.