Some Republicans say they need to offer options, not just opposition to reform

Some Republicans are worried that just opposing Democratic initiatives instead of offering alternatives will put the party in an untenable political position in the 2010 election.

“Unfortunately, I see a lot of Republicans simply involved in political games,” Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) told a group of conservative bloggers over the weekend. “The Republican leadership in the House right now is constantly trying to play a political game to get a headline, and I don’t think that is going to take us anywhere.”

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At the moment, the picture looks rosy for the GOP. The party has effectively used the healthcare debate to seize political momentum, and despite the massive stimulus package passed in February, the unemployment rate continues to rise.

But the healthcare debate looks set to wrap up by the end of the year. What’s more, the GOP could be ignoring long-term dilemmas that could blunt what the party was hoping would be large gains in midterm elections.

“Most of our Republican friends, they’re only interested in the next couple days’ worth of headlines, rather than what they’re doing and the impact it’s going to have in the long run,” Rohrabacher added.

Republican leadership aides contend their party has gone above and beyond in order to achieve bipartisanship as well as alternatives to Democratic proposals.

“When [Democrats] choose to go it alone and we have to oppose them, our job is to offer the American people better solutions, rooted in our principles — and we have,” said Michael Steel, a spokesman for House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio). “On every major issue this year — the stimulus, the budget, the environment and energy and healthcare — we have offered better alternatives to the Democrats’ old-fashioned, big-government policies.”

But at the moment, said David Redlawsk, the director of the Eagleton Center at Rutgers University, Republicans have yet to break through the clutter to get their alternatives in front of the electorate.

“It’s not clear right now, the way [Republicans] are behaving, that they have a long-term plan,” Redlawsk said. “It strikes me that while the strategy of no to everything plays really well with the Republican base, they won’t be able to play for House seats unless they go beyond that.”

Economists believe job creation will pick up in the second and third quarters of 2010 — right around the time of the election. Unemployment, which currently sits at 9.8 percent, is likely to peak early next year before declining. If the unemployment rate declines for several months before Election Day, Democrats will be able to point to the stimulus measure as a solely Democratic initiative that turned the economy around.

That leads Rohrabacher to worry his party is playing day to day, while Democrats are planning for the long term.

“I think that Republicans should be more focused on the long term rather than short-term headlines,” Rohrabacher told The Hill in an interview Tuesday. “You have to convince people that you’re serious, and by doing that you talk about your long-term alternatives and what you’re doing.”

That strategy, he said, can be an effective way to battle the Democratic Party’s assertion that the GOP is the “party of no.”

“The Republicans need to make sure that the public knows that we are not just in opposition, but we also have very creative alternatives to the horrible things the Democrats are trying to accomplish,” he said. “I don’t think we’ve put out enough on that.”

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Meanwhile, if there is a voice within GOP leadership that is offering what-if scenarios should the unemployment rate begin to drop, no one will say who it is.

Democrats who complain that Republicans are unwilling to work in a bipartisan fashion in order to pass reform or stimulus measures are beginning to believe the GOP’s approach will backfire politically.

“I think they’ve gotten themselves in this trap where their knee-jerk response to everything is no, and the American public wants problem-solvers, not naysayers,” said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “When you’ve got a president saying, ‘Yes, we can,’ and the Republican mantra is ‘No, we can’t,’ that is not a platform for them to run on.

“Apparently, right now, they’re just running a totally negative campaign. It’s a campaign that’s rooted in pessimism, and I don’t think that provides an alternative that people are going to want to rally around,” Van Hollen said.

Republicans contend differently.

“I understand Rep. Van Hollen’s desire to create a straw man to distract attention from the House Democratic leadership’s embarrassing record of budget-busting spending and catering to liberal special interest groups at the expense of the American people,” Steel said. “[B]ut facts are stubborn things. The fact is, the American people are asking, ‘Where are the jobs?’ and House Democrats’ response is job-killing policies like the ‘cap-and-trade’ national energy tax and a government takeover of healthcare.”

But while Democrats believe they are in strong position to capitalize on public opinion if the economy turns around, their argument to voters will still be predicated on that very big “if.” An economy that doesn’t turn around would give Republicans an electoral advantage.

“The trends are still in the right direction. If you were to see a reversal in the current trends, that could spell trouble,” Van Hollen acknowledged.

“The one very important measure that continues to lag behind are the unemployment figures. But if you measure where we are today compared to where we were in January, things are improving,” he added.