GOP's self-deluded optimism: Why its long-term outlook is horrible, despite '14

Yes, Republicans are well-positioned for the midterms -- but after that, they're in a world of trouble. Here's why

Published March 19, 2014 5:05PM (EDT)

  (AP/J. Scott Applewhite/Chris Usher/Timothy D. Easley)
(AP/J. Scott Applewhite/Chris Usher/Timothy D. Easley)

Reince Priebus is bullish. It’s been one year since the Republican National Committee chair unveiled the Growth and Opportunity Project, the RNC’s stark “autopsy” of the 2012 electoral rout, and Priebus told reporters yesterday that his party is looking at “a tsunami-type election” this November. “My belief is that it's going to be a very big win, especially at the U.S. Senate level, and I think we may even add some seats in the congressional races,” said Reince. And to make sure there was zero chance of his being misunderstood: “It’s a disaster for Democrats.”

Priebus’ remarks received a lot of coverage, which is a little curious because they weren’t especially compelling ("BREAKING: Party Chair Sees Good Things Ahead For Party"). But they were definitely fighting words, and when you start talking to political reporters about “tsunamis” and “disasters,” you’re going to get your name in the paper.

Ultimately it doesn’t really matter what Reince Priebus calls it. The Republicans are indeed positioned to have a good 2014 election –  but no thanks to Priebus’ “autopsy,” which spent the year being largely ignored by the party it was meant to reform. Which means that while their short-term outlook is strong, the long-term one is no better than it was in the wake of President Obama's second victory.

Ask anyone at the RNC what they’ve accomplished and they’ll tell you about the outreach they’re doing, and all the tech people they’ve hired, as recommended by the Growth and Opportunity Project. “But it’s not just tone that counts,” the report declared. “Policy always matters.” So what has been done on the policy front? Nothing.

The policy component of the “autopsy” was so critical that the RNC overstepped its normal role and made recommendations on which policies it felt could broaden the party’s appeal. Chief among them was immigration reform. “We are not a policy committee,” the RNC said, “but among the steps Republicans take in the Hispanic community and beyond, we must embrace and champion comprehensive immigration reform.

The thinking among the authors of the document was that Obama’s reelection was so traumatic and that every Republican with a pulse would finally realize that a course correction was needed on immigration. And at first it looked like they were on to something. Fourteen Republican senators voted with Democrats to pass the Senate’s comprehensive immigration reform bill, and Priebus was sanguine at the prospect of the GOP-controlled House getting on board. “I know the leadership in the House is committed to putting something pretty comprehensive together that's going to address the issue,” Priebus said.

That never happened. The Senate bill gathers dust on the shelf while John Boehner and the rest of the House Republican leadership bumble about issuing and then reneging on immigration principles. And Priebus, meanwhile, has transitioned from confident statements on immigration reform’s future to carefully hedged babble. “I would … caution you not to impose your definition of what comprehensive immigration reform is,” Priebus told John Dickerson. “There’s a general agreement that we need to have serious immigration reform, but I don’t believe there’s general agreement as to what that reform is.”

And then there are the robber barons. Without issuing a specific recommendation, the RNC’s report counseled that the party should take a more adversarial pose toward corporate America:

We have to blow the whistle at corporate malfeasance and attack corporate welfare. We should speak out when a company liquidates itself and its executives receive bonuses but rank-and-file workers are left unemployed. We should speak out when CEOs receive tens of millions of dollars in retirement packages but middle-class workers have not had a meaningful raise in years.

Fight the power! To the ramparts! Enter Rep. Dave Camp, the Republican chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, who inked a tax plan that actually proposed tax increases for “Wall Street tycoons” who “receive compensation packages riddled with special tax-exempt treatment – courtesy of hardworking taxpayers.” It looked to fit nicely with Priebus’ vision for a new, populist GOP.

Except not really. Anti-tax orthodoxy still reigns supreme among Republicans, and Camp’s tax proposal was dead on arrival. Even still, the “Wall Street tycoons” were put out that the Republicans would even mention raising their taxes and immediately canceled all their fundraising events as punishment. And even though the tax plan was already dead, House Republicans desecrated its corpse in order to make amends for Camp’s heresy.

All this adds up to zero progress on the policy front. Instead, Priebus and the rest of the GOP have settled on Obama and Obamacare as the ponies they’re going to ride to victory. Preibus told reporters yesterday: “You had the nationalization of Barack Obama and Obamacare in both of those places, and it is a poisonous issue for Democrats, just like there were national issues that really hurt us in 2006 or 2008.”

That’s working for the party now, and that helps to explain (along with ideological rigidity) why the Growth and Opportunity Project’s policy ambitions have gone unrealized. But more and more people are signing up for coverage, and the GOP is losing opportunities to sabotage Obamacare’s implementation. And who knows what could happen if, by some chance, Democrats actually start defending the law.

Regardless of how 2014 shakes out, Obamacare’s potency as an issue is not everlasting. And for all of the RNC’s boasting of improved messaging and technological savvy, they won’t be sufficient to paper over the Republican Party’s indolence on substantive reform. After all, remember what they said: “Policy always matters.”

By Simon Maloy

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