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John Feehery: Dangers of prevent defense

Congress is coming back into session as the Super Bowl season begins, so I am going to rely heavily on a football metaphor in this column. 

Congressional Republicans have a solid lead going into the second half. They are the favorites to keep the House, and the odds are looking good for them to take the Senate. The president is unpopular, his key legislative initiative (ObamaCare) is a disaster, and both the Senate map and House redistricting should give the GOP a big edge in the coming elections. 

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It would be a mistake for Republicans to assume they have an easy path to victory though. They shouldn’t play the congressional version of prevent defense. 

For those who don’t know anything about football, prevent defense is when a defensive squad deploys a less aggressive strategy on the front lines by putting more players in the secondary to stop a long play by the offense. 

The problem with prevent defense is that it tends to give the quarterback more time to throw the ball, and usually puts the offense on the offensive. 

Republicans need to stay aggressive on the legislative front and not let the president and congressional Democrats define the political landscape for the coming year. 

They are counting on ObamaCare to be the defining issue of the election. They might be right. But they might be wrong. 

I worked in the House Republican leadership when then-Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) assumed that the impeachment of Bill Clinton would be the No. 1 issue of the election of 1998. That assumption cost Newt his Speakership, as Republicans lost seats and almost lost their majority. 

Senate Republicans made a similar mistake in 2000. Then-Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), serving as majority leader, made the decision to take his foot off of the accelerator in Clinton’s last year in office, keeping a modest legislative schedule because he assumed that his majority was safe. Senate Republicans lost control of the chamber. 

In 2006, then-Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), contemplating a run for president, similarly embarked on a modest legislative agenda, with the Congress meeting for only 242 days — the fewest since World War II.  The results weren’t pretty. Democrats swept both chambers, and Frist decided not to run for president. 

Congressional Republicans need to seize the narrative, which might get away from them if they are not careful. 

Senator Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has been quite clever in putting Republicans on the defensive. He has promised a vote on an increase in the minimum wage, he is pushing hard on a further extension of unemployment benefits and, last year, he successfully got the Senate to vote on employment discrimination protection for homosexuals. 

In response, Republicans have promised further votes on aspects of ObamaCare, the first of which is protecting the privacy of those who are forced to sign up for the program. 

But the GOP shouldn’t just talk about ObamaCare. 

Republicans should hit the president hard on two issues in particular: (1) his anemic efforts to create jobs, focusing especially on those who have dropped out of the workforce entirely; and (2) the frightening increase of those who have become almost entirely dependent on government subsidies to stay alive during the president’s tenure in office. 

Democrats’ response to this would be predictable but wrong-headed: to increase the minimum wage and to give people more time to stay on unemployment insurance. 

The problem with these solutions is that they would make the problems worse. They make it harder for small businesses, especially restaurants, to hire workers and they give a perverse incentive to keep people from looking for work. 

House Republicans should draft up and then pass a bold job growth strategy that includes comprehensive corporate tax reform making it far easier for businesses to hire new workers. Second, they should pass Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) poverty agenda, and put pressure on Reid to do something about helping the poor. 

Most of all, they should get on offense and stay on offense. Forget the prevent defense. It never works. 

Feehery is president of Quinn Gillespie Communications and spent 15 years working in the House Republican leadership. He is a contributor to The Hill’s Pundits Blog and blogs at www.thefeeherytheory.com.