The 2010 Opening Salvo

For President Obama, Democrats and three lonely Republican senators, the deal over the $787 billion stimulus package may have been about resurrecting a faltering national economy and rebuilding our nation’s infrastructure, not to mention creating or saving millions of jobs, but for House Republicans — actually, let’s be frank, all congressional Republicans except three — their collective vote of “No” had little to do with fiscal or ideological principles, and everything to do with laying down the groundwork for resurrecting the Republican Party in 2010.

Now, opposing an immensely popular president may not be politically prudent, and while I tend to think that the Republican Party’s political fortunes seem about as promising as Joaquin Phoenix’s musical career, it seems that the Republican leaders have decided on one Sarah Palin-like Hail Mary political strategy.

Basically, this is their strategy as I understand it: Bet against the economy and President Obama’s popularity, and try to create an opposing message narrative where GOPers — as a party — can come back during the midterm elections and say to voters, “How much better off we would be if we had done what we said instead of what Democrats/President Obama proposed.

Think of it as the “I told you so” strategy. Within that strategy, it’s fair to say, there will not be much room for bipartisanship.

From a communications perspective, what you saw the last couple of weeks, from congressional Republicans locked to their talking points who were waxing poetic about the rise of wasteful spending and the decline of both bipartisanship and fiscal responsibility, was the emerging message of how they plan to redefine their party, and define Democrats, over the next 19-20 months.

Overall, the Republican message narrative at this point seems to involve two critical components.

First, ignore the fact that President Bush created this mess for President Obama. For congressional Republicans, the fact that it was the Bush administration’s economic and regulatory mismanagement that is responsible for forcing President Obama into a position where we need a multitrillion-dollar stimulus/bailout of our economy is irrelevant. No surprise there, of course. But what it means is that they plan to rewrite (or ignore) history and will attempt to directly tie the woes of the economy to President Obama and Democrats.

Second, talk like fiscal conservatives. Basically, Republicans are putting aside the fact they are the poster child for wasteful spending (I mean, c’mon, do you know how hard it is to blow through a multitrillion-dollar surplus in just a few years?), and are going to embrace the language of fiscal conservatism. (You know the language recipe: It involves two parts wasteful spending, one part exploding deficits, with a feigning dash of taxpayer outrage, not to mention the compulsory chatter of “generational theft”.)

For Republicans, the strategy behind embracing this message strategy and language is very clear.

First, midterm elections have lower turnout and so it is critical for Republicans to re-energize their base from the last few disastrous elections. Their plan to energize their base is quite simple. Instead of talking like social conservatives, and winning just social-conservative voters, Republicans are aiming to energize their entire base by “talking” like fiscal conservatives.

Second, try to reframe the party’s appeal with moderates/independents by helping spark concern over the level of government spending and what it means to their families (and now we know where the focus-grouped term “generational theft” came from). Put this together with a targeted message machine (whether it’s Republicans robotically sticking to a set of talking points or the “end is near and it’s all Democrats’ fault” talk on talk radio — you know who you are, Rush Limbaugh) and you are seeing the beginnings of a very aggressive, albeit incredibly risky, strategy that will keep hitting Democrats and the president every time they propose a new policy to deal with a crumbling economy.

The political danger for Republicans, aside from the fact that if the economy turns around their party could literally collapse in another Democratic wave in 2010, is that the American people will get tired (if they’re not tired already) of hearing you spout the same policy solutions that helped get us in this mess to begin with. Not to mention the fact that spending 19-20 months saying “no” over and over again will not be a fast path to electoral success.

In politics, much like in war (or is it kung fu?), you need to have an idea of where your adversary is going in order to best block his offensive. The Democrats and President Obama face the challenge of not playing into the GOP’s message trap. And what is the message trap? The message trap is giving the Republicans what they want. What they want is a fight, but what they really want it to be is ignored.

In other words, as frustrating as it may be, the strategy for weakening the ability of Republicans to attack is to listen to them and then challenge them directly on how the last thing this country needs are more failed President Bush-like policies. President Obama and congressional Democrats should listen to what the Republicans have to offer, but future policy debates should be less driven by seeking bipartisanship as an end, instead seeing it as a means. Meaning: If Republicans have good ideas that actually address the problem, great, let’s use it.

But if congressional Republicans want a fight — and they do — let’s hit them where it hurts. Don’t give them a chance to reframe their party, and don’t let the voters — or Republican congressional leaders — forget who really got us into this fiscal mess.

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