WASHINGTON ― Republicans are steaming toward congressional majorities in both chambers as dissatisfaction with President Joe Biden’s agenda rises and the GOP dreams of a 2010-style wipeout of the Democratic Party.
What will they do if they actually get there? Well. Ummm. It depends. They’re not totally sure. They might have something for you soon.
Asked last week what was in Republicans’ agenda if they regain control of Congress, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) flatly told reporters: “That is a very good question. And I’ll let you know when we take it back.”
That’s a break with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who plans to roll out an agenda and told the right-wing website Breitbart News: “I don’t think majorities are given, I think they are earned. I think you also should be very truthful to the American public about what you would do with that majority.”
Since the rise of the infamously detail-averse Donald Trump, Republicans have retreated further and further from their self-proclaimed mantle as the “party of ideas.” Former House Speaker Paul Ryan’s numbers-heavy plans to drastically cut both taxes and the social safety net have been replaced by Kevin McCarthy’s loyalty to Trump and relentless attacks on Democrats as socialists.
Democrats are hoping the GOP will pay an electoral price for lacking clear plans to fix the country’s myriad problems, from ongoing inflation to the coronavirus pandemic.
“Think about this. What are Republicans for? What are they for?” Biden asked last week during a press conference in which he pushed back against Republican efforts to obstruct his agenda.
But the evidence points to the possibility Republicans’ policy avoidance could actually help them as they work to clear the relatively low barrier necessary to win control of both chambers of Congress in 2022, a margin of just five seats in the House and a single seat in the Senate.
Biden’s low approval rating combined with the centuries-long historical trend of parties in power suffering during midterm elections make GOP success close to a lock, barring a major shift in the political environment.
The lack of a clear agenda even cost Republicans a top recruit for a Senate run. New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu told The Washington Examiner recently that he was “bothered” that GOP senators he spoke with while considering jumping into the race against Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.) this year were unable to identify their policy aims should they win back the majority in November. The plan, the governor said, seemed to involve little else than obstructing Biden until 2024 and a Republican could be ushered into the White House.
“They were all, for the most part, content with the speed at which they weren’t doing anything. It was very clear that we just have to hold the line for two years. OK, so I’m just going to be a roadblock for two years. That’s not what I do,” Sununu told the Examiner.
Senate Republicans spent their first year in the minority under Biden doing exactly that. And it has proved to be an effective political strategy, at least when it comes to Biden’s sagging poll numbers and growing frustration within his party over the state of his presidency.
McConnell’s big gamble ― backing Biden’s infrastructure overhaul, effectively allowing it to pass while blocking the bulk of his domestic legislative agenda, the Build Back Better Act ― has paid off handsomely so far. Progressives who called for both the infrastructure bill and the Build Back Better Act to move together, ensuring they both would become law, were rebuffed. Build Back Better is now stalled thanks to Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), and it’s clear Democrats will have to settle for something far less ambitious.
Republican messaging over the past year has focused on attacking Biden over a number of issues, including pandemic-related supply-chain woes, lack of COVID-19 tests, growing inflation and the surge of migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border. GOP lawmakers spoke out against many of the social safety net programs proposed by Democrats in their Build Back Better agenda, such as affordable child care, paid family leave and monthly checks for parents. But they haven’t proposed much policy of their own to address such issues.
Republicans also fought mask requirements and vaccine mandates while blaming Biden for failing to get the COVID-19 pandemic under control as he promised. They unanimously opposed relief programs, such as stimulus checks and expanded unemployment insurance.
In the eyes of Republicans, Biden’s plummeting approval ratings ― including dismal showings among Democratic-leaning groups like Latinos and young voters ― and the ongoing pandemic malaise in the country gives them little reason to stick their necks out.
“They’ve left a blank canvas that gets filled in by the Marjorie Taylor Greenes of the world.””
– Jesse Ferguson, Democratic strategist
“Stopping the current train is all voters are looking for,” said one GOP strategist, who requested anonymity to speak frankly about party strategy. The strategist noted many suburban voters who backed Democrats in 2018 and 2020 had previously leaned Republican. “They just need permission to vote for Republicans, and the environment is giving them everything they need.”
Earlier this month, for example, a group of Republican senators introduced a bill to address rising inflation, which eats into workers’ earnings. The legislation would prohibit the passage of all future bills “that would be estimated to increase inflation until the year-over-year inflation rate drops below 4.5 percent.” In essence, their answer on inflation is to do nothing and wait it out.
Jesse Ferguson, a Democratic strategist and former top official at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, predicted the relative GOP silence on key issues would come back to bite them by allowing the most extreme members of their party to define Republicanism.
“They’ve left a blank canvas that gets filled in by the Marjorie Taylor Greenes of the world,” Ferguson said. He noted independent voters might not be totally sold on the Democratic agenda, “but when they look at the GOP, they see the inmates are running the asylum.”
Still, parties out of power can gain midterm advantages by remaining ideologically vague. Focus and blame will always remain on the president, and avoiding a specific agenda allows both ideological diehards and mushy swing voters to imagine the party is heading in their preferred policy direction.
The GOP did, however, signal some priorities should they win back the Senate. Earlier this month, amid a procedural fight with Democrats over voting rights and the filibuster, McConnell threatened to tee up votes on a series of GOP bills as a way to make Democrats think twice about eliminating the filibuster. (The gambit failed when Democrats called his bluff and agreed to vote on the legislation if McConnell relented on voting rights.)
The bills McConnell cited included some longtime GOP goals, such as prohibiting bans on fracking, cracking down on sanctuary cities, weakening labor unions and incentivizing schools to offer full-time instruction during the pandemic. But passing such legislation would require bipartisan support ― 60 votes ― with the filibuster still on the books. Nor is it clear whether Republicans could muster all of their members to support the measures.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, an architect of the 1994 Republican “Contract With America” policy list who has been advising House Republicans on their bid to retake the House this year, suggested one idea for the party if they return to power: Make their 2017 tax cuts permanent. Many tax cut provisions in the law, especially income tax cuts, are due to expire in 2025 (the corporate tax cuts, by contrast, were made permanent).
It’s possible Congress will act to extend the personal income tax cuts in some form anyway. Democrats have eyed the deadline as an opportunity to secure their own tax policy goals by cutting a deal with Republicans on an extension.
McCarthy and Gingrich are working together on House Republicans’ policy document ― though the Breitbart interview indicates McCarthy has far more promises prepared than he does plans. While he specifically mentions proposing a “Parents’ Bill of Rights,” McCarthy mostly ticks off a list of problems without providing solutions.
“We’ll secure the border,” McCarthy said. “We’ll stop the inflation and runaway spending.”