Pence plan for GOP woes

At the Republican Governors Association meeting in Miami a few days ago, all the talk was about, well, governors.

Since the GOP has lost the White House, the House and the Senate, the governors say, the action for the party is now in the states, where Republican leaders can implement new ideas and show leadership. Or at least that’s the plan.

The state chief executives invited one member of Congress to address them. Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.), the expected next head of the House Republican Conference, took part in a discussion titled “Looking Toward the Future: The GOP in Transition.”

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“The Republican Party at the federal level is in the wilderness,” Pence told the governors.

“We have to state the obvious. There is a difference between the Republican Party at the state level … and at the federal level. The lessons that were forgotten at the federal level were put into practice in increasing measure in places like Mississippi, places like Indiana, places like Texas, at the state level.”

After his talk, Pence and I discussed how the Republican Party got into its current mess. If there’s a back-to-basics versus transform-the-party argument going on inside the Republican world, Pence is in the first camp.

“There’s nothing wrong with Republican ideas, and there’s nothing wrong with [a] governing majority that supports a strong defense, limited government, and traditional values,” Pence told me.

“The issue here is not a problem of Republican ideas or outreach. It’s been a problem of credibility. I really do believe that where the American people have seen men and women in public office who have authentically and credibly put into practice what they profess to believe about limited government and fiscal responsibility and traditional values, the American people are drawn to those leaders.”

So who is responsible for the credibility problem? Plenty of Republicans. But as Pence talked, and as he denounced the party’s “failed experiment in big-government Republicanism,” it was impossible to avoid the conclusion that in his eyes the biggest offender of all is George W. Bush.

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“I hit Washington in 2001, and the first bill they put on the table was No Child Left Behind,” Pence said. “My second term in Congress, the very first bill the president put on the desk was the prescription drug entitlement.” In between, Bush never saw fit to veto even a single spending bill.

“From the very first day that he took office, he put into practice a form of big-government Republicanism that I think was anathema to most Republican voters around the country,” Pence continued. “And  ... Congress went along.”

And went along, and went along, until Republicans lost both houses of Congress in 2006 and the White House two weeks ago.

And now, for the way back. When he talks of a “governing majority,” Pence is referring to his belief that a majority of Americans still believes in basic conservative concepts. He cites a poll showing that just 22 percent of Americans identify themselves as liberal.

“I don’t think that’s a majority,” Pence told the governors.

True, but the election results are what they are. The voters rejected Republicans pretty roundly, and you can’t call a defeat like that a victory for conservatism.

Still, it’s hard to deny Pence’s point about the Republicans’ credibility crisis. If more voters actually believed GOP candidates could accomplish the things they say they want to accomplish, the party would be in far better shape. And that’s where the governors come in.

In Washington, Democrats control all. It’s in Baton Rouge, and Tallahassee, and Austin, and Indianapolis and Salt Lake City and Bismarck where Republicans will have the opportunity to prove themselves. Then, perhaps, Republicans can earn another chance to govern at the national level.

At least, that’s the plan.

York is a White House correspondent for National Review.
E-mail: byork@nationalreview.com