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Monday, October 24, 2016

WASHINGTON — It’s a daunting challenge to spin the word “no” into a hopeful and forward-looking political battle cry.

There are, of course, circumstances when negative arguments can work. In obviously terrible times, voters are often content to take a chance on a barely sketched-out alternative. In midterm elections, which are like midsemester report cards, voters often protest against what they don’t like. “No” was a successful pitch in three straight midterms going back to 2006. The GOP’s 1946 slogan, “Had Enough? Vote Republican,” was a model of simple and clever effectiveness.

But the evidence of the moment is that “had enough” will not be enough for the GOP in 2016. Of course we cannot know from Hillary Clinton’s current leads of around 9 or 10 points over her major Republican competitors that she will ultimately prevail. Still, her advantage owes at least in part to unease about where Republicans would take the country if they won both the presidency and Congress. For now, voters don’t want to go there.

Events of the past week underscore why. The absurdity of going to the wire on funding the Department of Homeland Security tells us that many in the party, particularly right wingers in the House, do not care about how their inability to govern in an orderly fashion looks to citizens outside the conservative bubble.

For the more radical members of Speaker John Boehner’s caucus, this is all about high principle. Since most of them come from very conservative districts, they will only strengthen their own political situations by continuing to link DHS funding to overturning President Obama’s executive actions on immigration. They have nothing to lose.

But collectively, their party has a lot to lose. To win the presidency and to improve their chances of holding the Senate in 2016, Republicans will have to do far better with Latino voters than Mitt Romney did in 2012. This fight will only make that harder. And middle-of-the-road voters don’t like this sort of brinksmanship, as well they shouldn’t.

The way Republicans are behaving could thus turn one of the party’s assets, the likelihood that they will hold their House majority for some time, into a liability. This argument is advanced forcefully by political scientist Thomas Schaller in his new book, The Stronghold.

Schaller describes the potential of a vicious cycle: As the party has become more conservative, it has become more Congress-centered, “anchored to and defined by its congressional wing, and its House caucus in particular.” But a majority of its House members are either extremely conservative or fearful of primaries from the right. This makes the House highly sensitive to right-wing donors, right-wing media and right-wing voters — and far less responsive to those middle-ground citizens who usually decide presidential elections. The danger, says Schaller, is that the GOP’s congressional stronghold could become a “chokehold.”

The doings at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) that closed on Saturday only reinforced the point. Republican presidential candidates worry about those very conservative primary voters too, and CPAC was an excellent opportunity for the hopefuls to show how well they can dance to the oppositionist tune, a chorus of “No” to Obama, Clinton, liberalism and “big government.”

Jeb Bush, who is actually very conservative, has put up some resistance to the spirit of negativity. “We shouldn’t be the reactionary party to how bad things are,” he told a Club for Growth gathering in Florida on Thursday.

When he appeared at CPAC on Friday, he did declare that “we have to start being for things again,” but only after praising Republicans in Congress for standing up to Obama. He sidestepped when Fox News’ Sean Hannity asked about the House Republicans’ approach to DHS funding though he did speak of his party’s need to win more Latino votes.

Bush would clearly like to take a cue from his brother who, before the 2000 election, occasionally distanced himself from an unpopular right-wing Congress. But Jeb is orchestrating his independence with great caution and some ambivalence. The GOP is well to the right of where it was 15 years ago and also much more insulated. It’s worth remembering that Fox didn’t become the largest cable news network until 2002.

In my experience, the people who see Jeb Bush as the most electable nominee tend to be Democrats, not Republicans. This may prove his general election strategy is working, but it also shows his party may not let him get there because it’s quite happy being “reactionary.”

E.J. Dionne’s email address is [email protected] Twitter: @EJDionne.

Photo: Former governor Jeb Bush speaks at the 42nd annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) on Feb. 27, 2015 in National Harbor, MD. Conservative activists attended the annual political conference to discuss their agenda. (Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/TNS)

  • Dominick Vila

    The problem with the “Had Enough” tactic is that it reminds us of what we finally left behind. Do we really oppose preventing the U.S. economy from collapse? Do we oppose significant reductions in deficit spending, and not having to raise the national debt ceiling 18 times? Do we really oppose regulations designed to prevent a recurrence of the fraudulent Wall Street activities that contributed to the 2007 Great Depression? Do we oppose withdrawing our troops from Iraq, and ending U.S. casualties and maiming in a country where our sacrifices were not appreciated? Do we oppose policies and actions that contributed to keeping the USA safe? Honestly, I doubt it.
    Unfortunately, pathetic Democratic strategists failed to challenge the claims made by the GOP, and they failed to articulate the gains we have made against tremendous odds and strong opposition. The problem is not the GOP propaganda machine, but the fact that when it comes to propaganda and brain washing, we are like cub scouts fighting the Wehrmacht.

  • itsfun

    The Republicans won control of the House and Senate because they promised certain things. If they fail to carry out these promises, they will not only lose the presidential election, but the house and senate also. The people that elected them, will just stay home.

    • FT66

      Am sorry to deliver this bad news to you. Republicans can’t fufil promises they made before elected in 2014. The Math doesn’t add up. Even if one Chamber (Congress) can pass everything, it will go and die in the other Chamber (Senate). Republicans need 60 votes in Senate to pass whatever is passed in Congress which they can’t get. They can’t even over-ride the President VETO without the help of Dems. Dems are tightly united now than ever and are behind the President in his endeavours.Tough Maths my friend!

      • itsfun

        What I should have said is they must make a real effort to fulfill their promises. I don’t believe the Dems are tightly united though.

    • Allan Richardson

      They were elected THIS time by people staying home. The headwind Democratic candidates have fought for some time is that progressive voters have to “fall in love” with a candidate to get to the polls, while conservative voters automatically “fall in line” with their party’s candidate. The truth is that GOP voters do not ALL agree with ALL of their party candidates’ platform issues, and do not ALL WANT every “promise” they made to be kept; in fact, to most reasonable people of both parties, some of those “promises” are more like “threats,” as in the “promise” to take away your health care that you only just got when the law was changed to keep you from being denied.

      However, because of religious and pseudo-patriotic loyalty to conservative ideology, and misinformation spread by Rush and Glenn and Bill and Sarah, etc, too many voters automatically vote for Republican candidates whom they would know are certifiably crazy if they were open to the facts, over Democratic candidates whom they have been told are “all” communist, socialist, anti-American, without even asking if this is true. What we as concerned progressives who want what is best for ALL Americans, including ourselves, need to do is to speak to these well meaning Republican voters, one on one, who are our friends and relatives, not in a hostile way, but in the form of questions. WHY do you believe the “government” wants to take away your guns, or force you to worship Allah, or whatever the fabrication of the day is? HOW can giving more money to people who have far more than they can spend already, rather than people who need things and would spend it, improve the circulation of money in the economy and create jobs? Etc. etc.

  • fortunev

    Like cub scouts fighting the Werhmacht. Really? Methinks that is much too much praise for right-wing pedants. The political pendulum swings both ways.

    • Dominick Vila

      Can you imagine what the GOP would have accomplished, politically, if they had saved the economy from collapse? If they had authorized the raid that delivered justice to the mastermind of 9/11? If they had managed to keep the USA safe, instead of presiding over the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history? If they had managed to reduce deficit spending by 2/3, and kept the need to raise the national debt ceiling to a minimum? If they had turned a loss of 800.000 jobs a month into solid job creation? If the DOW had gone from 7,000 points in January 2009 to over 17,000 points now? Rest assured, they would not have been on the defensive, and we have been to the point that many Democrats did not even vote in 2014, and many distanced themselves from the President that accomplished more than could be realistically expected from anyone.

      • Lynda Groom

        Indeed! Where would the state of the economic recovery be today if the GOP had spent just a small fraction of their obstructionism time working to improve the lives of ordinary Americans? Perhaps a nod to to a viable JOBS bill. History wlll not be kind to the party for their behavior during the 8 years of the Obama administration. Their were opportunites galore to share in the credit for doing the right (see correct) thing, but those opportunities were cast aside in the name of polically driven drivel.

      • fortunev

        I agree with the political mechanics. In my view President Obama will go down in history as one of our greatest presidents for all the reasons you mention. In my mind, however, a comparison such as cub scouts vs Wehrmacht is like the Walker comment comparing legitimate protesters in his state with murdering Daesh terrorists. A bit of hyperbole.

  • BOC

    They never had a chance.