What the GOP Can Learn From Obama's First Year

The election that swept Barack Obama into the White House wasn't about health care, even though it seemed that way to a lot of Democrats still smarting over President Clinton's failed effort 16 years earlier. Obama was elected because of the collapsing economy and his opposition to the war in Iraq. And his focus on health-care reform after the election was interpreted by voters as inattention to their paramount concerns: jobs and the economy.

The White House didn't do enough to connect the dots between health-care reform and economic security, and the Republicans filled in the blanks by frightening voters about the real and imagined impact of a changed system engineered by one-party control in Washington. As a result, the GOP is on track to make big gains in November, and they are likely to interpret those gains as affirmation for a strategy that is narrowing the party's appeal and offering no new ideas.

Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg points out that it took Democrats a decade after the defining election of 1980, when President Reagan ushered in a new conservative era, to embrace new policy ideas with Clinton in '92. Greenberg studied the hopes, dreams, and voting habits of Reagan Democrats for years to find the road map back to "the forgotten middle class." Republicans are skipping the soul-searching. They are so giddy with the prospect that they could be returned to power after only two short years of Obama that they have done nothing to prepare a narrative for legislating or governing.

Republicans fault Obama and the Democrats for legislating like they had a bigger mandate than they did, and now Democrats are paying the price for overreaching. But Republicans aren't in high favor either, and if they pick up seats simply because this is the year when voters are tossing out incumbents, they'd best prepare to take their own advice, and not let one election go to their heads.

Obama's election is indeed a cautionary tale. Democrats believed it was the dawn of a new progressive era, and now they're scrambling to eke out even a modest health-care bill against a wall of Republican opposition and disaffection in their own ranks. The president may be guilty of misreading his mandate, but the absence of ideas on the Republican side presents another problem. You can't claim a mandate if you don't have a platform. If the GOP won control of Congress tomorrow, all they could claim they were elected to do is not pass health-care reform. (See what the GOP might do if they were running the country.)

That's why it was so refreshing this week to sit down with Indiana Gov. Mitch Mitch Daniels, a lonely voice in the Republican Party advocating for an honest discussion about the country's challenges—as opposed to lobbing word bombs at the administration. Daniels served what he calls two sentences in the White House, first as a top aide to Reagan chief of staff Jim Baker, and then as President George W. Bush's budget director. Those experiences leave him "inclined to be a little charitable" to the occupants of the Obama White House. The hour he spent with reporters at a Tuesday-morning breakfast in Washington was free of gratuitous talking points designed to make the other side look bad, focusing instead on the enormous budgetary challenges ahead and his hope that Republicans can build a healthy alternative to Democratic ideas, instead of just throwing out red meat and hot rhetoric. He recalled how Reagan would remind aides who got a little hotheaded, "We have no enemies, only opponents."

Daniels said he is concerned about "the future of the American experiment," a statement he acknowledges may prove overdrawn or incorrect. But, given the challenges, he would like to see his party campaign to govern, "not merely to win." For that to happen, the GOP needs a program that is intellectually credible, and a tone that is inviting and friendly. Otherwise, the party has no chance of unifying people around its program.

Asked his reaction to last weekend's CPAC, a convention for conservative activists, Daniels demurred, saying he wasn't there, that he respectfully declined an invitation to speak. "I don't do that sort of thing. I stay in my lane." Casting barbs at the other side is part of the political process, Daniels said, but he hoped that when the moment is right (sounding a bit like a Cialis commercial), the voice and the tone of the party will be amiable.

Every campaign season tends to have a truth-teller, the candidate that the media celebrates for courageously calling upon the voters to sacrifice, as opposed to making promises the country can't afford. These candidates never win. Asked if he might run in 2012, McDaniels recoiled, citing "the savagery of our politics" and saying, "Can't you name a hundred reasons for not doing it ... beginning with how any of this might sell in a primary." If the goal is winning, glib slogans are a lot more appealing than complicated ideas, as the Democrats have learned to their detriment.