The Right Opinion

It's Pirate Time for the GOP

The party needs to be unpredictable and bold -- and grab some of Obama's issues.

By Peggy Noonan · Jan. 12, 2013

It’s official. Congress is now less popular than cockroaches and colonoscopies, though more popular than the ebola virus and gonorrhea. Really. The numbers came, this week, from a Public Policy Polling survey. The House and Senate have an approval rating of 9%.

GOP governors are the party’s most esteemed leaders, but they’re not in Washington. The Republican voice and presence in our national debates comes from its members on the Hill. They’re the ones America sees on the news every day, which is unfortunate because they are, largely, deal makers, legislators and even plain speakers who are not necessarily gifted explainers or thinkers.

They are up against the Democratic voice and presence. That would be President Obama (approval rating in the low to mid 50s) and his White House. He is just off a major electoral win, commands the national mic, is about to be celebrated at a second swearing-in, and will soon give a nationally covered inaugural address. Also he just won on the fiscal cliff, for now. We’ll see the blowback. Payroll taxes have just gone up, ObamaCare is yet to be fully instituted and will be costly, things are about to get more expensive for everybody. But at the moment he’s king.

And what the Republican Party has each day going up against him – presenting the party’s case, explaining its thinking – is a disparate and fractious lot of varying talent who, again, are connected to an institution less popular than cockroaches.

It doesn’t, at the moment, seem a fair fight.

Normally we see Republican congressmen and senators in a gaggle, and their message always seems to get lost. They’re usually talking about pieces of things, some part of a bill, or an amendment. Little they say seems to cohere, or to connect with a higher purpose, intent or meaning. What they say doesn’t amount to a cacophony – it’s not that lively. Their message always seems muted and blurred.

Congressional Republicans haven’t been able to come up with an immediate and overarching goal or a strategy to achieve it. Many feel as if they’re always in the dark, unclear on what the leadership is thinking or about to do.

But a goal and strategy are needed. Without them, everything will seem ad hoc, provisional, formless, meaningless. The public will see it that way, especially in comparison to the president, who seems these days to have a surer sense of what he’s about, and a greater confidence that you’ve finally twigged on to it, too.

So here’s an idea for Republicans in Congress. It has to do in part with policy, in part with attitude and approach.

They should starkly assess their position. It isn’t good. They just lost an election, they’re up against the wall, they have to figure out how to survive and thrive as a party that stands for something, while attempting each day to do the work that needs doing for a country in trouble. The challenges are huge, the odds long.

They can sit back and be depressed and whine. Or they can decide: It’s pirate time.

And really, it is.

Now is the time to fight and be fearless, to be surprising, to break out of lockstep, to be the one thing Republicans aren’t supposed to be, and that is interesting.

Now’s the time to put a dagger ‘tween their teeth, wave a sword, grab a rope and swing aboard the enemy’s galleon. Take the president’s issues, steal them – they never belonged to him, they’re yours!

In political terms this means: Reorient yourselves. Declare for Main Street over Wall Street, stand for the little guy against the big interests. And move. Don’t wait for the bill, declare the sentiments of your corner.

Really, it’s pirate time.

Examples of what might be done:

If you are conservative you are skeptical of concentrated power. You know the bullying and bossism it can lead to. Republicans should go to the populist right on the issue of bank breakup. Too big to fail is too big to continue. The megabanks have too much power in Washington and too much weight within the financial system. People think the GOP is for the bankers. The GOP should upend this assumption. In this case good policy is good politics.

If you are a conservative you’re supposed to be for just treatment of the individual over the demands of concentrated elites. Every individual in America making $400,000 a year or more just got a tax hike that was a blow to the gut. Regular working people are seeing their payroll deductions increase. But private-equity partners who make billions enjoy more favorable tax treatment. Their income is treated for tax purposes as a capital gain, so they’re taxed at far lower rates. This is called the carried interest exemption, and everybody knows it’s a big con.

The Republican Party should come out against it in a big way. Let the real rich pay the same percentage the not-actually-rich-but-formally-declared-rich are paying. If the Republicans did this they’d actually be joining the winning side, because carried interest will not survive the new era. If congressional Republicans care about their party they’ll want it to get credit for fairness, as opposed to the usual blame for being lackeys of the rich.

Republicans make too much of order and discipline. Sometimes a little anarchy is a good thing, a little disorder a sign of creativity and independence of thought. If there are voices within the GOP that are for some part or parts of gun reform it would be good for them – and for the party – to come forward now. I love the Second Amendment and I’m not kidding, but I have to say tens of millions of assault weapons in the hands of gangbangers and unstable young men couldn’t be what the Founders had in mind.

We need a little moderation here, a little give.

Finally, Republicans should shock everyone, including themselves, by pushing for immigration reform – now. Don’t wait for the president, do it yourselves, come forward individually or in groups with the argument for legalization of who lives here now. Such bills should include border control and pathways for citizenship, but – and most important – they shouldn’t seem punitive or grudging and involve fines and lines and new ways to sue employers. The world has changed. Ease up now. In the past 10 years immigrants, legal and illegal, have fought our wars. We need to hurry in those who are trying to bring gifts we need into the USA. Whoever comes here learns to love our crazy country, or at least appreciate it. If we do a better job of teaching them why the goodness we have even exists, we will do OK.

The point here is to have the GOP lead in terms of good policy. But it’s also important for the Republicans to show the variety, disagreement and alive-ness that exists within the party. It is not some grim monolith, some thought-free zone, or was not meant to be. It’s not bad to be unpredictable. Living things are.

Members should loosen up, speak for their corner, put together caucuses, go forward, move. Go on TV, dagger and sword, and make your case.

Really: It’s pirate time.