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September 15, 2014

The GOP’s ‘Don’t Rock the Boat’ Strategy

For too long, Republicans have simply sought to be “Not Democrats.”

In August, Republican prospects for victory in the midterm elections were looking up, even though victory was not a foregone conclusion. Now that the last of the primaries are behind us and the election season is in high gear, another view of the landscape reveals a slightly different story.

The House is quite likely to remain in Republican control. Democrat campaigners still talk publicly about opportunities for victory, but in private even they admit their focus now is stemming the number of losses. And the GOP remains optimistic about taking the Senate, though that optimism is more guarded than in recent months. Just a few weeks ago, everyone was talking about a wave election, but that’s no longer the case. The chances for significant gains in the House have all but evaporated, and the GOP Senate strategy is focused on getting just enough seats to gain control, if that.

Republicans have done this to themselves. For too long, their strategy has been “Don’t vote Democrat” rather than “Vote Republican.” Three caveats: First, there is wisdom in the proverb from the book “The Art of War,” in which ancient Chinese writer Sun Tzu said, “When your enemy is in the process of destroying himself, stay out of his way.” Second, even if Republicans win both houses of Congress, they’ll have only so much leverage against Barack Obama’s White House. Third, GOP leaders are all too aware that the party’s approval numbers are right down in the mud with Democrats, making it difficult to predict voter sentiment ahead of Election Day.

But none of that is an excuse to toss principles out the window.

Last year, they fought hard against Obama’s agenda, stopping new gun control, minimizing tax damage, and holding the line, at least for a little while, on the budget. Obama has made it a theme to complain of their obstruction, saying on Labor Day, “They oppose almost everything. Republicans in Congress love to say ‘no.’”

This year, however, Republicans haven’t pursued any bold moves that could shake up the electorate or put them in a compromising position with voters. That doesn’t mean they’re doing nothing. The Hill reports on their latest proposals: “Republicans are putting together an agenda for the first 100 days of 2015 in case they win control of the Senate. Authorizing the Keystone XL oil pipeline, approving ‘fast-track’ trade authority, wiping out proposed environmental regulations and repealing the medical device tax top their list.” Good things, but not bold.

Last week, House Republicans announced a continuing resolution to keep the government funded into December. If Obama were to kill that resolution for any reason, another government shutdown would loom, and Republicans would face another media disaster weeks before the midterms.

Republicans are so afraid to rock the boat that the House has gone ahead and reauthorized the Export-Import Bank through June 30, 2015. This “bank” goes against the free-market principle of reduced government interference in the private sector. For years, Ex-Im has redefined crony capitalism by doling out taxpayer dollars to large exporters who are hardly in need of additional cash to fund their efforts.

Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-TX), Financial Services Committee chairman, has undertaken to kill Ex-Im. He recognizes the problem the bank causes by putting its thumb on the economic scales, distorting the economic picture and freezing out mid-size firms that could be robust additions to the export market. Unfortunately, Hensarling and a number of Republicans fell victim to the old Washington two-step. Many of their largest donors happen to be companies that benefit greatly from the Ex-Im Bank. What happened next is pretty self-explanatory.

Reauthorization of the bank couldn’t have come at a worse time. Perhaps next June Republicans will be able to slay the beast, but for now, they are unwilling to pay the political cost.

The non-fight over the Ex-Im Bank is a symbol of the problem with the current Republican midterm strategy. By refusing to act boldly and follow their principles, Republicans are actually hindering the possibility of a landslide victory in November. Voters may give them the edge, but there will be no significantly higher turnout and certainly no mandate if most voters have trouble differentiating between the parties.

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