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On the Republican Politics of Reaction

Elvin Lim is Assistant Professor of Government at Wesleyan University and author of The Anti-intellectual Presidency, which draws on interviews with more than 40 presidential speechwriters to investigate this relentless qualitative decline, over the course of 200 years, in our presidents’ ability to communicate with the public. He also blogs at www.elvinlim.com. In the article below he looks at the Republican party. See Lim’s previous OUPblogs here.

American presidents do not have the luxury of savoring victories, but this is also an asset because they have a multitude of areas to prove their worth to the American people. Following the House’s historic vote on health-care last Sunday, President Barack Obama met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday, and made a surprise visit to Afghanistan on Sunday. Next month, he will attend a summit on nuclear security with 40 heads of state. The President is attempting a pivot to show that he is the president on domestic policy and health-care, and he can also be a president abroad.

And this is why the Republican campaign strategy of repealing the Democrats’ health-care bill for this November cannot be enough. Republicans have been playing catch-up all year, reacting to events rather than creating them. For a while, the Republican message-of-the-day was that the Democrats were tone-death on the jobless rate and misdirecting their energies on the health-care debate. But the jobless rate isn’t the central concern of politicians or economists as it was last year. Now the Democrats have passed health-care reform, Republicans have shifted their focus to wanting to repeal it. Not only is this a mere politics of reaction, it is also the politics of delusion. Republicans running on repeal are running on something that can never happen – because President Obama will wield his veto against 67 Senators should it come to that – and when Republicans fail to do what they promised to do, their base would only become disenchanted.
At the heart of the Republican search for a positive and not merely a reactive agenda for campaign 2010 is the search for its soul. And even in this, Republicans have been reactive, for many were too slow to recognize the phenomenon called the Tea Party Movement. This movement has the potential of making or breaking Republican dreams this November. Conservative candidate Doug Hoffman didn’t merely force Republican Dede Scozzafava out of the race in the special election in NY23, but he ended up splitting the vote on the political right and giving the election to Democrat Bill Owens. Similarly, Sarah Palin may be the brightest political star of the Tea Party Movement, but she polls poorly with moderate Republicans. To decipher what they are for, Republicans need to sit down and think about what to make of, and what to do with, the Tea Party Movement.

If Washington Democrats know what they are for, Republicans haven’t settled yet on anything other than what they are against. “Hell no” will give a Republican primary candidate the Tea Party Movement’s vote, but it doesn’t guarantee anything come the general election, not least because major provisions of the health-care bill recently passed won’t come into effect until 2014, and it would be difficult to make a conclusive case against Obamacare in 2010. Republicans need a comprehensive and positive governing agenda instead. They should be anticipating the future rather than reacting to the present, because politics is not only about the past or just about the present.

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