Whether it was a wave, a sweep or merely a vote for a less-bad option, Republicans seized control of the U.S. Senate and increased their majority in the House of Representatives. Public polling suggests Tuesday's midterm election was less a vote for someone or something than a protest against President Barack Obama, his policies, and the direction in which he is taking the country.
In no way was the election a mandate for GOP policies, which weren't even on the ballot. In fact, keeping some of their socially conservative views off the ballot probably helped Republicans at a time when the country is increasingly tolerant of alternative lifestyles.
If Republicans want to parlay their two-year control of Congress into a successful White House bid, they will have to do something positive and, more importantly, improve their image.
New York Times columnist Paul Krugman would have us believe that Republicans seek legislative office solely to help the rich get richer. In reality, what may seem like Republican indifference to the plight of the poor is actually a function of their views, at odds with Democrats', on what constitutes help.
Republicans can be dead right on economic policy, but if they lose the public relations war, they lose. Here are a few areas in which the GOP would benefit from some coaching in the fine art of communication:
1. Minimum Wage Maxim
No issue has as big an emotional appeal as the minimum wage. Everyone wants society's less fortunate to be able to provide for themselves and their families. Mandating a floor on wages isn't the way to do it.
Why should the price of labor be subject to a different set of rules than the price of gasoline, housing or medical care? The higher the price, the lower the quantity demanded. Yet advocates of an increase in the minimum wage can always point to some new study that shows, lo and behold, no adverse effect on employment.
The American public overwhelmingly supports an increase in the federal minimum wage from its current $7.25 an hour. (Half the states already have a higher mandated minimum.) If the GOP can't make a convincing economic argument against it, then try another tack: Get out the handkerchiefs, make an emotional appeal for an increase, but do it on moral grounds. Leave it to the Democrats rewrite the law of supply and demand.
2. The Outsourcer's Apprentice
During the 2012 presidential election, Mitt Romney was tagged with the "outsourcer" label. Democrat Michelle Nunn tried that strategy against her Republican challenger for Georgia's Senate seat, businessman David Perdue. She lost, by a lot.
Still, outsourcing remains a hot-button issue at a time of significant underemployment in the U.S. The GOP needs to emphasize ways to address the short-term displacement of outsourced workers - with job training, for example - while emphasizing the long-run benefits to the nation. Think cheap consumer goods. Or lower costs and increased profits for business, which may not be a strong selling point with certain constituencies. But yes, corporations do create jobs, here in the United States, as rising wages in developing nations reduce those countries' comparative advantage.
Some manufacturers are partnering with local community colleges to acquire highly skilled workers. Republicans should encourage, even facilitate, these mutually beneficial relationships, which don't need a federal program or a host of new regulations.
3. Replace the Repeal
Republicans have said they want to "repeal and replace" the Affordable Care Act. The House voted 54 times to repeal the law; there has been less focus on the replace part.
Repealing specific provisions of the law, such as the tax on medical devices, has broad bipartisan support. Eliminating the employer mandate will be more difficult (Obama delayed implementation twice.) Staging more symbolic votes to repeal the law, which Obama has said he will veto, is silly.
While the GOP does have alternative plans for providing access to healthcare, they are among the best-kept secrets in Washington. Republicans should promote their solutions, the way Ed Gillespie did in the Virginia Senate race. Alternatively, if the ACA is really as unworkable as its critics claim, Republicans should let it collapse under its own weight.
4. Make Love, Not War
Republicans may have won a battle with the defeat of gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis in Texas and the election of female senators from Iowa and West Virginia, but they have a long way to go to win the war on women. My advice would be to keep quiet on the issue of women's reproductive rights. I'm serious. This is one area where it would serve conservatives to take a page from the libertarian playbook.
5. The Holy Grail
Everyone is in favor of tax reform: a simpler code, lower rates, fewer loopholes. Yet no one wants to sacrifice his or her tax break. Which is why real tax reform remains a chimera.
Each year the federal government loses more than $1 trillion of revenue to so-called tax expenditures, or spending by another name. If Republicans are serious about changing their image, they could focus first on eliminating lucrative tax breaks, such as the mortgage interest deduction and the exclusion of employer-sponsored health care. These loopholes, each of which has a large and well-financed constituency, are inefficient and favor the wealthy. The GOP could demonstrate its willingness to take on big business and corporate welfare by pushing for an elimination of tax breaks as a prerequisite for reducing tax rates for individuals and corporations.
Let the Tax Reform Act of 1986 serve as a model. At the time, Republicans controlled the White House and Senate. President Ronald Reagan worked with a Democratic House to negotiate a compromise. "Some special interests were hurt, but the public interest was served," according to the Hill's Congress Blog.
The party of public interest. How does that sound for a GOP mantra?
Caroline Baum is a contributor to e21. You can follow her on Twitter here.
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