Winning Congress isn’t enough — Republicans have to save it
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A few weeks after Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpHouse Democrat slams Donald Trump Jr. for ‘serious case of amnesia’ after testimony Skier Lindsey Vonn: I don’t want to represent Trump at Olympics Poll: 4 in 10 Republicans think senior Trump advisers had improper dealings with Russia MORE’s October surprise, Republicans again find themselves split between those defecting from his ranks and others pushing to preserve some semblance of party unity.

Many conservatives still want Trump to win. A growing number expect him to lose. Yet nearly all hope a Republican Congress can stop the bleeding should Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonGrassley blasts Democrats over unwillingness to probe Clinton GOP lawmakers cite new allegations of political bias in FBI Top intel Dem: Trump Jr. refused to answer questions about Trump Tower discussions with father MORE take office in January.

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As raw numbers go, the party looks to be in decent shape. Most projections show Republicans holding onto a 10- or 15-seat margin in the House, and they have at least a fighting chance to retain control of the Senate. This month's controversies don’t help, but they did spark a change in strategy for many down-ballot candidates that could blunt some of the damage.  

But this election jockeying masks a deeper problem: The Republican brand is in tatters.

Party favorability hit its lowest mark in 25 years this summer, capping a decade-long tumble that reveals Trump is merely a symptom of the disease rather than its root cause.

That plunge began with the end of the Bush administration, but the real scourge has been Congress.

Americans disapprove of the job it’s doing at a historic rate of more than 80 percent. The GOP has controlled both chambers since 2014, and the Republican House has served as the seat of opposition to President Obama since 2010. While voters blame Democrats some for the mess, politically the GOP is on the hook.

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Compare that to the last time Republicans swept into power on Capitol Hill. With divided government from 1995 to 2001, Congress earned an average approval rating upwards of 40 percent — a threshold it hasn’t hit for even a single month since 2005. Republicans were rewarded with popularity numbers about 15 to 20 points higher than today.      

Of course, this difference could be the result of some larger force: The economy was humming along quite nicely for most of the 1990s, for instance.

But two facts seem to imply otherwise. First, although Democrats’ favorability numbers are gloomy, they’ve generally remained about 10 points higher than Republicans’ since late 2011. Second, though President Obama’s approval rating has hovered below 50 percent for most of his term, it does not come close to mirroring historic lows for presidential job performance.

If the Republicans’ problem were general malaise, we’d expect Democrats to be facing comparably dire straits. That they aren’t suggests congressional dysfunction is likely playing at least some role in the GOP’s sinking fortunes.  

Here the 1990s playbook offers some guidance: Republicans must reassert Congress as a coequal branch of government in the minds of voters. A legislature that's seen only as a check on presidential power will earn no credit for policy wins and nearly all the blame for Washington's setbacks.

The Constitution offers a good foundation for this effort. Presidents have wide latitude to conduct foreign affairs, which is where a Republican Congress would have to swallow its whistle most often. On the home front, however, a president’s role is more circumscribed, allowing Congress greater power — and responsibility — to shape the national agenda.

The executive branch will of course dodge these limits whenever its lawyers can halfway justify it.

To make that overreach conspicuous, Republicans must go out of their way to show good faith, supplying a legislative program that isn’t premised simply on reversing Democratic gains. The GOP should launch a coordinated fight for solutions it can make Clinton look foolish for vetoing, including corporate tax reform, school choice, and more policy flexibility for states in the spirit of federalism.

If that roadmap sounds a lot like the 1994 Contract with America, it should. Republicans spent six years successfully reining in a Democratic president, and far from having nothing to show for it, they got welfare reform in 1996, tax cuts in 1997, and financial reform in 1999.

Sure, Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonMueller’s probe doesn't end with a bang, but with a whimper Mark Mellman: History’s judgment Congress should massively ramp up funding for the NIH MORE got plenty of credit and remained popular, but that didn’t prevent Republicans from winning back the White House in 2000.

Should Hillary Clinton remain set on governing exclusively by executive fiat, Republicans would have an easy case to make that she must be replaced in 2020. But that level of stubbornness seems unlikely. Election pivoting aside, Clinton isn’t to the left of President Obama on most issues. She’ll want to grab legacy points, and a return to bipartisan governing would be a far more enduring record than another blast of executive orders.

Regardless of what she chooses to do if elected, Republican leadership must persuade rank-and-file members of the dire need to get back on offense. History shows that parties don’t need to control the presidency to rebuild trust with voters.

The bad news is that without a new direction, winning Congress may only set Republicans back further.

Lawrence is a communications strategist in Washington, DC. He has worked as a consultant for Atlantic Media Strategies and currently works at the American Enterprise Institute.


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