Such is the lament of the party out of power in Washington. Republicans on Capitol Hill say they have many good ideas and want to join with President Obama and the Democrats to alleviate the country's problems. They want to collaborate on a health-care bill, a jobs bill, a clean-energy bill. But they can't, because the Democrats—intent on pushing through a radical agenda that is out of touch with real Americans—won't listen to them. Republicans want to help the president succeed, but he won't let them.
This isn't true, of course—any more than it was true when the Democrats said the same thing as they dedicated themselves to thwarting George W. Bush. In zero-sum Washington, members of the opposition party have little incentive to help the president, especially if it means the credit for their actions could accrue to him and not them. If politics is the art of compromise, then politics as practiced in the capital is the art of preventing compromise at all costs. This is why, infuriatingly, our elected officials spend so much time plotting ways to stick it to the other side with "filibuster-proof super-majorities" and "nuclear options," while the unemployment rate hovers in the double digits and 46 million Americans go without health insurance. It is why not a single GOP senator voted for the health-care bill now stalled in Congress, and why Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell turned against a GOP-inspired plan for a deficit commission once Obama endorsed the idea.
A handful of Republicans—Sen. Olympia Snowe on health care, Sen. Bob Corker on financial reform—have tried on their own to break from this tit-for-tat and deal with Democrats. They see what most politicians know but don't talk about: that on many issues, the differences between the two sides are not nearly so great as the party bosses would have us believe. Too often it is politics, not policy, that stymies progress. Certainly Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi, scornful of Republican ideas and motives, have not gone out of their way to solicit Republican views. And the GOP leadership has made known its displeasure at moderates' overtures to the other side. Some of Snowe's colleagues treated her like an apostate. Corker has been frustrated in his efforts. "We've probably had the most selfish generation in Congress … in modern times," says Corker. "It's beyond belief to me that the deficit commission did not pass."
There is a luxury to being the party of "no." As Obama himself has now discovered, it is much easier (and, to some, more viscerally satisfying) to stop something in Washington than to start it. But what if the Republicans had their way? What if Obama and the Democrats simply stepped aside and allowed the GOP to take charge of fixing the nation's troubles? What would they do—and how different would it be, really, from the Democratic proposals Republicans say are so extreme that compromise is all but impossible? A guide to what the GOP wants:
For Republican leaders, there is one way to create new jobs that trumps all others: tax cuts. Leave more money in the hands of business owners, Republicans say, and they will use it to place orders—stimulating job growth—or hire new workers themselves. "We're not going to look to Washington to create the jobs," says GOP Rep. Kevin McCarthy, summing up the Republican liturgy. Most in the party (like most Americans, according to polls) want nothing to do with another expensive stimulus that would smack of expanded government. Yet the GOP has also rejected Democratic bills that tried to lure Republicans by including significant tax cuts. Earlier this year Republican Sen. Charles Grassley reached an agreement with Democratic Sen. Max Baucus on an $85 billion jobs bill. It combined small-business tax breaks with an injection of money for the Highway Trust Fund, more unemployment insurance, and agriculture emergency assistance. Other Republicans resisted Grassley's entreaties to sign on, even though the bill was adorned with the tax-credit extensions for businesses that Republicans wanted.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid wound up withdrawing the bill the same day he offered it. Democrats had complained that Republicans were going to slam them for the expensive bill, despite the GOP gifts it contained. Reid replaced it with a meager $15 billion version, made up mostly of tax breaks for businesses that Democrats and Republicans agree on. But such small-bore efforts aren't likely to make much of a difference. That leaves the Republicans in a tough spot. Obama is out there boasting that the stimulus plan the GOP rejected saved jobs in the worst months of the recession. Now Republican leaders risk being seen as lining up against any bill that contains spending to promote job growth, even if it also includes the tax cuts they favor. To avoid the appearance that they're merely obstructing, they'll have to come up with something better than that.
How big a problem is the $1.4 trillion budget deficit and the ever-expanding national debt? (Just FYI, the debt now tops $12 trillion and grows an average of $3.87 billion each day.) Pose that question to five economists and prepare for five different answers. Some believe a large debt burden could cripple the economy and scare off foreign creditors. Others say that the numbers, though scary to look at, are still manageably low as a percentage of the overall economy. Democrats worry that attacking the deficit too harshly now could result in a double-dip recession. Small-government Republicans come down squarely on the side of smaller deficits. It is an issue that goes to their deepest principles, and appeals both to their base and to the growing tea-party movement they hope to win over. Cut spending, reduce government, and restore America's strength.
Sounds great. Except that no one in either party has figured out how to do that in a way that won't cause a rebellion among the voters. Republicans attack Obama's deficit-ballooning budget every chance they get, but the GOP leadership has put forward no serious proposals that would slow, let alone reverse, the growth of government while still providing everything we demand from Washington. (Remember that George W. Bush, an avowed small-government conservative, presided over a massive increase in the size of government.) Politicians can talk all they want about eliminating waste, fraud, and abuse. But the truth is, we could pull the plug on the entire federal bureaucracy and it would barely make a difference. The real problem is runaway costs in three sacred entitlement programs: Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. Until something is done to bring them under control before the baby boomers start retiring en masse, the rest is just talk.
This is no secret. Ross Perot was screaming about it two decades ago. Yet Republicans and Democrats are equally afraid of speaking honestly about the looming crunch. One Republican, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, has introduced a detailed proposal to cut the deficit by reining in Medicare and Social Security spending. It would shift some of the burden from the government to individuals and introduce, among other things, a voucher system for Medicare. The result? Ryan has attracted just nine Republican cosponsors and zero Democrats. Small-government gospel or not, the overwhelming majority of Ryan's colleagues won't risk being anywhere in the vicinity of the truth on this one, especially in an election year.
When President Obama addressed a joint session of Congress last September to push for health-care reform, Republicans engaged in a quiet protest. They brought along copies of what they said was a GOP health-care bill, and waved them at the president to show that they too had a plan, and it was better than his. It made for good TV, but in reality there was no unified GOP bill; the Republicans hadn't actually agreed on an alternative to the Democratic reforms they were working so hard to kill.
Since then, House Republicans have come forward with a plan to rival the Democratic versions now sitting idle in the House and Senate. It has a catchy name—the Common Sense Health Care Reform and Affordability Act—and its authors proudly say that they got the job done in a mere 219 pages of Washington-speak; the House Democratic version weighs in at 1,990 pages. The GOP bill would prevent insurers from dropping people from their rolls if they got sick; ensure that people with preexisting conditions can get insurance; and require insurance companies to let children stay on their parents' plans until they reach their mid-20s.
Nothing new there. All those provisions are part of the Democratic bills. But that's where the similarities end. The two parties have different goals in reforming health care. Democrats believe that more government regulation of the health-insurance industry is needed to make sure just about everyone can get coverage while at the same time controlling rising costs. Republicans want the opposite: to free health-insurance companies from regulation and allow market forces to bring down costs and provide affordable insurance options.
To do this, Republicans would allow insurers to sell policies across state lines and encourage small businesses to band together to leverage their bargaining power. Democrats aren't necessarily opposed to this idea. "That is why we created the national insurance exchange," says Democratic Rep. John Dingell, who argues that creating a marketplace where both individuals and small businesses can shop for insurance plans "will spread risks, reduce costs, and help everyone get into the system." But there are big differences in how the two parties envision this working. Democrats favor one vast nationwide pool and would require insurers to offer plans that meet government minimum requirements for coverage and costs so the industry can't steer the old and sick into more expensive plans with stingier benefits.
Republicans see that as intrusive government meddling. They want a system of small, self-selecting pools of people with similar needs. The free market will see to it that insurance companies meet demand, they say—a claim that is met with skepticism by many economists and health-care analysts, who note that it hasn't worked that way in places where such ideas have been tried. "Republicans trust the American people to do what's best for themselves, instead of turning decisions over to a bureaucrat," says Boehner's spokesman, Michael Steel.
Take genuine philosophical differences and layer on this sort of chest-thumping, and it's not hard to see why health-care reform, once considered a sure thing this year, now seems anything but. It's also not hard to see why the public is fed up. According to the new newsweek Poll, Americans say they oppose Obama's health-care plan 51 to 37 percent. Yet they overwhelmingly favor its specific provisions: 73 percent want to require businesses to offer insurance; 78 percent are in favor of requiring insurance companies to cover everyone, regardless of their health; and 81 percent like the idea of insurance exchanges. Still, when those polled were told that those things are part of Obama's plan, support jumped just 10 percent.
Oddly enough—given the sharp exchanges between Obama and John McCain during the 2008 campaign—this is probably the area of policy where there are the fewest disagreements between the parties. That may be because it's where Obama has tacked most rightward since taking office, blunting opposition. Whereas Republicans pounded the administration last summer for its months-long review of the war in Afghanistan, now the White House appears to be having some success in combating the Taliban and persuading Pakistan to crack down hard on militants. One sticking point: Obama's insistence that he'll start bringing troops home from Afghanistan in the summer of 2011—a deadline McCain and other Republican hawks oppose.
On Iran, after a long, not very successful effort at outreach, Obama is likewise taking a tougher line on sanctions. On China, he announced new arms sales to Taiwan and met last week with the Dalai Lama, quieting conservative critics who said he was too soft on the communist regime. All these policies mesh with GOP goals. Even Dick Cheney admitted that he approves of Obama's direction in Afghanistan, and most Republicans support the president's slow, cautious Iraq-withdrawal timetable.
Now here is where the serious disagreements set in. Few issues have caused more acrimony between Republicans and Democrats than what to do with detainees still being held at Guantánamo Bay and with other captured terrorist suspects. President Obama—like President Bush and McCain—wants to close Gitmo, in part because it has become a propaganda tool for Al Qaeda and its allies. Many Republicans want to keep it open, if only to prevent Obama from carrying out his intention of moving some of the men to prisons within the United States. Republican leaders are even more strongly opposed to the administration's plan to try terror suspects in federal civilian courts instead of military tribunals.
The dispute over the prisoners comes down to a core disagreement between Democrats and Republicans, and one that isn't easily bridged: should captured terror suspects be regarded as criminals subject to the U.S. criminal-justice system, or as enemy combatants subject to military justice? This divide was highlighted at the end of last year with the arrest of failed Christmas Eve bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. Republicans sharply criticized the Obama administration when it was revealed that the terror suspect had been read his Miranda rights and was provided a lawyer. "He should have been declared an enemy combatant so that he could have been questioned without a lawyer for a much longer period of time," says Kit Bond, the top Republican on the Senate intelligence committee. "At the right time, after all intelligence was obtained, there should have been a discussion about whether criminal charges or a military commission was appropriate."
Another lingering source of tension: interrogation methods. President Obama has banned the use of harsh techniques, and with the exception of Dick Cheney, who still declares himself a "big supporter of waterboarding," Republicans have largely backed away from that practice. But some GOP leaders continue to endorse the use of other extreme interrogation methods—stress positions, cold temperatures, and sleep deprivation—that Obama stopped. "The government should be able to use any interrogation techniques that are within the boundaries of our laws and moral values, and are effective," says Bond. He would still prohibit waterboarding, but says vaguely that he "would allow our interrogators to use other lawful and effective techniques, even if they are not in the Army Field Manual." Republicans insist that revealing which methods can and cannot be used only helps the enemy train against U.S. interrogation. Bond and other Republicans argue it is important for the United States to keep its options open. If Osama bin Laden or Ayman al-Zawahiri were to be captured, Bond says, U.S. officials must have the ability to declare them enemy combatants so that they can be "interrogated until we have obtained every bit of intelligence they possess."
Since the 1980s, Republicans have led the debate on education. They have introduced some of the most successful reform ideas for improving failing schools: increasing competition and choice, raising standards and expectations, and relying on hard data to determine what works and what doesn't. Democrats, long focused on school integration and protecting teachers' unions, were slow to come around. Over the last decade, as proof grew that some of these ideas were working, Democrats began embracing many reforms first floated by the GOP. Republicans still love, and Democrats by and large still hate, the idea of vouchers, which allow families to use tax dollars to pay for private school. That aside, there's more agreement than not.
So when the Obama administration rolled out its $4.3 billion Race to the Top initiative—offering rewards to the states that had the most ambitious school-reform programs—they expected an enthusiastic Republican response. Instead, nearly every Republican in Congress wound up voting against the plan because it was part of the president's stimulus package.
There may be hope for cooperation in the future. Most Republicans have good things to say about Education Secretary Arne Duncan; like Obama, he sides with the GOP on charter schools. And Republicans largely approve of the president's plans for revising Bush's No Child Left Behind program. Checker Finn, a senior fellow at the conservative Hoover Institution and an education official in the Reagan administration, believes that amid all the acrimony in Washington, "education may be the one significant policy domain where the Obama agenda is winning reasonable points from a lot of Republicans, myself included." It may not be enough to stop the shouting. But it's a place to start.