The Republican Party’s shocking leadership vacuum

If you arrived on Earth today from outer space and looked at Washington, you’d never guess that the Republican Party holds both houses of Congress. In fact, you’d be certain that the Democrats, not the GOP, won a landslide in the midterm elections last November.

Remarkably, since taking control of both the House and Senate, Republicans have systematically ceded the initiative to the Democrats. The GOP has shot itself in the foot; starting with their inept strategy to counter President Obama’s executive amnesty on immigration culminating with their hapless capitulation on funding for Homeland Security to committing missteps like the Iran letter which offers Obama and the Democrats a scapegoat should the Iran deal fall through. Now comes the looming disastrous suggestion of House Speaker Boehner’s to have special investigation into former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s missing emails –a sign that the Republicans have learned nothing from the 1990s.

The GOP has shot itself in the foot.

The GOP finds itself in the tenuous position of having to depend on Democrats to accomplish things. This is a hugely ironic outcome for a party that claimed, last November, to have won a stronger mandate to govern than we’ve seen in decades.  As a consequence they are facing a potential fracturing of their own voting base – the very voters who delivered to the party a landslide victory just a few short months ago.

The GOP has shot itself in the foot.

Where have they gone wrong? The answer lies not only in what they have done since January, but what they did—and didn’t do—before, during the election campaign.

The Republicans never crafted and sustained a narrative message to promote their agenda, which should’ve been founded on a pro-growth economic strategy, piecemeal immigration reform and sensible fixes to Obamacare. Consequently, when it came time to govern, they have had little to fall back on but their time-honored (and failed) strategy of simply opposing President Obama.

This strategy hasn’t worked with voters, who give Republicans lower marks in recent polls than Democrats. And it hasn’t worked with the party’s base, which is chomping at the bit for some real leadership.

In the latest PPP national Republican poll, Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, still relatively unknown, leads the pack of potential nominees with 25% of the vote. Ben Carson, the retired neurosurgeon who has electrified the GOP with his strong conservativism and Tea Party appeal, garners 18%. Their combined 43% is an indication of the broad dissatisfaction by the Republican voters with the Republican political class.

In a recent poll of Republican voters supervised by Caddell Associates, Boehner held a paltry 43% favorability rating, while Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell fared even worse, with 38%. A majority of voters said that Boehner has been ineffective in Congress. And only 25% felt that Boehner and McConnell should be elected to their leadership positions. Indeed, only 16% of Republican voters wanted both Boehner and McConnell elected to top leadership; 53% preferring neither or someone new. The party itself also polls poorly with all voters: the latest Quinnipiac poll finds that 69% disapprove and only 22% approve of how Republicans are handling their job in Congress.

Republican leadership is even failing with fellow Republicans. Just look at last week’s Department of Homeland Security (DHS) funding bill debacle, wherein Boehner had to depend on Democratic support to pass funding for the department. Only 75 Republicans voted with him—and those Republicans heard it from their base for having conceded the immigration. Rumblings are afoot about a conservative coup to unseat the speaker. And it is now Democrats who say they will protect Boehner’s speakership against a conservative revolt.

Boehner was right to ensure that essential DHS funding should continue. The problem, however, is this: Republican voters are deeply concerned about illegal immigration: only 9% approve of Obama’s handling of the issue. While most didn’t support shutting down DHS, they are sick and tired of seeing their leaders capitulate to Obama and the Democrat agenda.

These voters wanted the GOP to make Obama’s pending order a campaign issue last fall. Indeed, the reason President Obama delayed his executive action until after the election was because their polling had found that the issue had turned toxic. A large majority of voters opposed the specifics of what the president was to do, and even larger majorities opposed the president taking executive action unilaterally. But the Republicans never confronted it, never got on the record saying that the president didn’t have the authority to do what he did, never forced Democrats to take sides.

Crucially, they have also yet to come up with a comprehensive immigration plan that puts border security first and only then offers a limited pathway to legal residence to those who obey the law and pay taxes. This is a plan that the base will accept and one that many Democrats will arguably support.

Similarly it appears the Republicans have not been able to put forth a party-wide position on how they would revise, reform or replace ObamaCare, which was with immigration the other major issue of concern to independents who voted for the Republicans in November. In each of these cases not only have they failed to advance a substantive agenda, they have failed to make a sustained political case to the majority of Americans who support them on immigration and ObamaCare – indeed not even on the Keystone Pipeline veto where a vast majority of all Americans supported the pipeline.

As a result, the Republican leadership has had nothing much more to fall back on than anti-Obamaism. Some key players, like Bush, realized that this futile approach won’t win back the White House. “It’s good to oppose the bad things, but we need to start being for things,” Bush told the CPAC crowd.

He’s right, but Bush may be the wrong bearer of that message. The Republican establishment leadership has no clue about its voters who are the most alienated and most anti-Washington in the electorate.  If they did, they would’ve adopted some of their voters’ core concerns in January, when they took possession of congress.

In this climate, an insurgent anti-establishment/anti-corruption candidate could clean up in the Republican primaries. And that’s a big part of Scott Walker’s initial appeal. He’s selling a message of what he’s accomplished, and not just ideology and anti-Obamaism.

But whether it’s Walker next year or another candidate, someone needs to start carrying the Republican banner—in campaigns and in the political battles in Washington. Republican voters thought they’d elected such representation last fall. They’ve been bitterly disappointed. Expect to see consequences, and soon.