To answer what’s at stake for Republicans in the 2014 election, let’s dispense with the obvious: assuming the GOP walks away with majority control of both halves of Congress, it means passing real federal budgets instead of cliffhanger stopgap resolutions, properly putting judicial and administrative nominees through their paces, and forcing President Obama’s hand on legislation heretofore unable to reach his desk (so far, Obama has issued the fewest vetoes since Warren Harding).
However, all of that’s low-hanging political fruit. For Republicans, the bigger challenge is identity.
Is the GOP destined to remain the alpha dog kenneled at the eastern end of Pennsylvania Avenue? Or, can it get back in the business of winning presidential elections and get off the congressional leash by coming up with a strategy that, ironically, capitalizes on the GOP’s dominance of Capitol Hill?
What’s at stake in 2014? Try this: getting the party’s act together in time for 2016.
By the time President Obama completes his final term and leaves office, Democrats will have occupied the White House for 16 of the 24 years since Bill and Hillary Clinton first moved to Washington. Republicans will have controlled one or both chambers of Congress for 18 of those 24 years.
Now, consider the partisan role-reversal that went on from 1954 to 1994. Democrats controlled one or both congressional chambers for the entire four-decade stretch. Republicans controlled the White House for 26 of the 40 years.
And with that control came real accomplishments: Eisenhower built highways; Nixon went to China; Reagan and Bush concluded the Cold War; the younger Bush led a war on terror. Feel free to name four things as remotely transformative over the past 20 years of Republican congressional influence.
So how do Republicans go about this image makeover?
Futility Is Not An Option. Opinions differ as to where a Republican Congress should proceed – taxes, military, energy, education? Whatever the topic, there should be one qualifier: don’t spin Congress’ wheels over futile gestures. In that category: repealing ObamaCare (the president will never give up his signature accomplishment); a constitutional amendment preventing judges from overturning same-sex marriage bans (the votes aren’t there to pass it or survive a presidential veto).
After 20 years of being portrayed as Washington’s henchmen, congressional Republicans should know that they suffer from media stereotyping – a party that’s angry, punitive and will use the next two years to engage in zero-politics. Why foster that image?
Extend an Olive Branch to Obama. Conservatives hate the notion, as it suggests capitulation. The point is: while Barack Obama’s approval rating has hovered around 40 percent in this election, Republicans stand to inherit an institution only half as popular as the campaign-toxic president. So there’s an urgency to seizing the political high road and being seen as the more adult branch of government – even if the president rebuffs the overture, Republicans can at least say they tried.
Obama, like Bill Clinton, may emerge from Tuesday night a wounded partisan warrior. But the president remains a formidable figure: he has a bully pulpit; his ink-filled pen makes him the town’s last-word freak. And, as with Clinton and the GOP Congress back in the 1990s, policy fights have a way of turning into PR fights, pitting a likeable individual versus an unlikeable institution. Disadvantage: GOP Congress.
On that note: finding likeable faces . . .
Replace Upperclassmen With Freshmen. There will likely be three GOP senators-elect by this time next week: Arkansas’ Tom Cotton, Iowa’s Joni Ernst, Colorado’s Cory Gardner.
All three were born in the 1970s; all bring a younger and a more vibrant image long missing among GOP senators. (not that Harry Reid is sweetness and light). While Gardner and Cotton currently are sitting members of the House, the three are not seen as “of Washington” as are the GOP’s older Senate bulls. And they can add a new perspective – whereas John McCain is a Vietnam-era hawk, Cotton and Ernst served respectively in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Gulf War.
The generational aspect is not to be taken lightly: since 1980, the six GOP presidential nominees averaged 66 years in age. With the exception of George W. Bush, all were grandfathers in a changing era of national elections when voters shifted their preference from eminence grise to older sibling.
A cynic can rightly note that congressional Democrats stormed back to power in 2006 and Barack Obama won the presidency without the need for a party makeover. Perhaps history will also unfold the same way for Republicans.
Still, the benefit of a big win on Tuesday would be a chance for the GOP to wise up, grow up and move the party up Pennsylvania Avenue to a work address.
In that regard, the stakes couldn’t be much higher.
Bill Whalen is a research fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, where he analyzes California and national politics. He also blogs daily on the 2016 election at www.adayattheracesblog.com. Follow him on Twitter @hooverwhalen.