House Republicans, after failing to win recent elections by attacking Speaker Nancy Pelosi, are vowing to concentrate more on policy and less on personalities this time around.
The tactical shift is significant because it represents a departure from recent years when the GOP sought to highlight the San Francisco Democrat as a leading reason voters should elect Republicans. The strategy didn’t work in the 2006 and 2008 elections and also fell flat in the special-election race to replace the late Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.).
Former Rep. and National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) Chairman Tom Davis (Va.) said, “They try to demonize Speakers, but it takes a lot [for it to be effective.] They tried that in Pennsylvania, but they have to translate the national trends into local races and they can do a better job of that.”
Unlike the last two elections, when President George W. Bush and then-presidential candidate Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCain20 years after 9/11, US foreign policy still struggles for balance What the chaos in Afghanistan can remind us about the importance of protecting democracy at home 'The View' plans series of conservative women as temporary McCain replacements MORE (R-Ariz.) attracted the spotlight, House Republicans this year are working on a new Contract With America-like document.
David Winston, a Republican pollster, said, “Part of the dynamic here is the way President Obama and congressional Democrats govern ha[s] opened this door wide open for Republicans, but the public at this point isn’t just simply saying, ‘Look at how bad [Democrats] are.’ They want to know what you’re going to do — why should they vote for you?”
House Republicans are still struggling, however, to distance themselves from Bush.
Democrats this week seized on comments by NRCC Chairman Pete Sessions (Texas), who on Sunday told NBC “Meet the Press” host David Gregory that “[Republicans] need to get back to the exact same agenda.”
Though Sessions has since denied that he was referring to the Bush policies, it highlighted the lack of a clear Republican policy roadmap.
Minority Leader John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerLobbying world A new kind of hero? Last week's emotional TV may be a sign GOP up in arms over Cheney, Kinzinger MORE (R-Ohio) said such a document will be released, but not until September, which is the month House Republicans unveiled their initial Contract With America 16 years ago.
“After an extensive listening session has gone on for months, and will continue through August, Republicans will come together and draw from those ideas and others from around the country to develop our governing agenda,” BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerLobbying world A new kind of hero? Last week's emotional TV may be a sign GOP up in arms over Cheney, Kinzinger MORE told reporters on Tuesday morning.
Democrats laughed at the GOP’s new shift in strategy.
Pelosi spokesman Nadeam Elshami said, “Let me make this very clear: Republicans have one policy, and that’s the failed policy of the Bush administration. Don’t take my word for it — Pete Sessions told the world, ‘We want to go back to the same exact agenda.’ We’re not going back.”
Pelosi has attempted to brush off Republican salvos over the years, saying, “If you can’t win on process, you go to personality.”
Certainly, Republicans will continue to criticize Pelosi and attempt to tie her to politically vulnerable members. The NRCC’s website features a graphic titled, “Pelosi’s Puppets: Cut the Strings” and notes how many times targeted Democrats have voted with the Speaker.
GOP pollster Whit Ayres said Republicans will not completely abandon attacking high-profile Democratic political personalities during the campaign.
“It will be the Obama-Pelosi agenda because President Obama has led the Democrats and Nancy Pelosi has implemented their fiscally irresponsible leadership,” Ayres said.
Outside groups will likely continue to hammer the Speaker. Before the special election in Pennsylvania, a conservative group called Right Change released a video titled “Attack of the 50-Foot Pelosi.” Such videos fire up the Republican base, but haven’t translated into wins at the ballot box.
There have been times when the GOP’s mocking of Pelosi has boomeranged.
Earlier this year, a Republican National Committee (RNC) slideshow portrayed Obama as the Joker from “Batman,” Pelosi as Cruella DeVille and Senate Majority Leader Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidDemocrats say Biden must get more involved in budget fight Biden looks to climate to sell economic agenda Justice Breyer issues warning on remaking Supreme Court: 'What goes around comes around' MORE (D-Nev.) as Scooby Doo.
In March, RNC Chairman Michael Steele’s call for Pelosi to be put on “the firing line” attracted controversy.
The NRCC, meanwhile, had to backtrack last fall after it claimed Gen. Stanley McChrystal should put Pelosi “in her place” on the war in Afghanistan. A week later, the campaign committee acknowledged it went too far in linking Adolf Hitler to Pelosi’s push for healthcare reform.
Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who is playing a leading role in crafting the new GOP contract, said Tuesday, “It’ll be a clear plan on how to change the culture of this House and put America back on the right track in focusing on jobs and spending.”
McCarthy also mentioned a talking point of “check and balance” that has been mentioned this election year by Republicans on both sides of the Capitol.
“You want some type of check and balance against [Obama’s policies]. And what provides that check and balance? Congress,” McCarthy said.
Davis echoed this theme: “If you are Republicans, you want to frame the election this way: Do you want to put a check on Obama, or do you want to give Obama a blank check?”
In many ways, the Republican campaign strategy in 2010 will be similar to the one Democrats employed in 2006. That year, then-Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Rahm Emanuel (Ill.) mocked House Republicans for being a “rubber stamp” of the Bush White House.
While the winds are at the Republicans’ back, there are indications that voters remain skeptical of the party.
A Gallup poll released on Monday showed Republicans trailing 43 percent to 49 on a generic ballot match-up. The poll was conducted from July 12-18, with a margin of error of three points. It was the first time since March that Democrats won the head-to-head generic ballot poll numbers, according to Gallup.
Citing the poll and the emphasis on balancing the policies of the White House, Davis said, “You want voters to understand that they are not putting the Republicans back in charge. That’s a heavy ask, because they basically fired us in 2006 and 2008.”
Though Obama remains personally popular, Winston said that Republicans should not be afraid of going after his record and policies.
“When [George H.W. Bush] was running for reelection, he was personally very popular but his policies weren’t. Ultimately it ended up being about his policies; ultimately what this is about is the policies where the Democrats are going and the direction where the Republicans will go,” Winston explained.