It is not just the winter of Republican discontent. It will in all likelihood be the spring, summer and fall, as well.
The national party is leaderless and nearly issueless, but besides that, is thriving and in fine fighting trim.
Once, taxes and national security were the party’s pillars, supplemented by domestic issues like welfare reform and crime and by symbolic issues like the Pledge of Allegiance and flag burning. Now, the pillars are in disrepair.
Cuts in income taxes don’t have the same resonance because rates are so much lower than 30 years ago. Republicans formerly had success with across-the-board tax cuts that reduced rates at the top and for everyone else. By focusing on raising rates on the top, Obama has forced them into almost exclusively defending “tax cuts for the rich.”
In theory, national security is still a Republican strength, but it doesn’t have as much resonance as in the years after Sept. 11.
The latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll has Democrats leading on: looking out for the middle class, Medicare, health care, reducing gun violence, Social Security, immigration, taxes and the economy. The good news for Republicans is that they lead on everything else. The bad news is that everything else is only spending, the deficit and national security.
The problem with the deficit as an issue is that people care about economic growth more, and the problem with spending cuts is that people like them more in the abstract than in reality.
At times, “we have a $16 trillion debt” seems the sum total of the party’s argumentation. When party leaders say that they have to become the party of growth again, the policy they invariably advance to that end ... is reducing the $16 trillion debt.
This necessary, but hardly sufficient message is almost all we hear from Republicans in Congress, where their majority in the House gives them responsibility without decisive influence. The House Republicans mainly have blocking power. Woe to the republic if they didn’t. But if you block things, you’re easily labeled an obstructionist, and wouldn’t you know it, people don’t like obstructionists.
Their only hope to deflect the nation from its profligate budgetary path is confrontations coinciding with key fiscal inflection points, like the March 1 deadline for the sequester. They always ride into these fights badly outgunned.
This won’t change soon. It is too early to have a presidential candidate or even a presidential field, so the GOP lacks a head and therefore a unified voice.
Of course, it wasn’t long ago that Democrats seemed to be in dire straits. The party agonized over appealing to “values voters” after 2004. Little did they know that eight years later, they would run a successful re-election campaign on limitless abortion and free contraception.
Events will again take a hand, as they always do. And since last fall’s election, top Republicans from Bobby Jindal to Marco Rubio have been talking about a more bread-and-butter economic agenda. Fleshing that out, though, is a longer-term proposition. In the meantime, Republicans should prepare themselves for more discontent.