GOP hopes to go from Party of No to Party of Choice

McClatchy NewspapersApril 11, 2010 

NEW ORLEANS — They know how to say no to President Barack Obama. Now, can Republicans get the rest of the country to say yes to them?

That's the question facing the Grand Old Party as activists and candidates emerge from a three-day strategy session in New Orleans and head toward the fall elections for control of Congress.

Speaker after speaker at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference rallied the faithful with stinging denunciations of Obama and the Democratic majorities controlling the Senate and House of Representatives.

"Secular socialist machine," cried Newt Gingrich.

"Dangerous power play," said Liz Cheney of Obama's health care law. "Appease our enemies," she said of his foreign policy.

Indeed, rather than dispute Obama's criticism of them as an obstructionist "party of no," most Republicans reveled in it as a badge of honor.

"There is no shame in being the party of no," Sarah Palin said. "When they're proposing an idea that violates our values, violates our Constitution, what's wrong with being the party of no? We're the party of hell no!" she added to cheers.

Is it enough? Perhaps.

Obama's approval ratings remain near or below 50 percent, a dangerous position for the party in power.

Also, Americans may be souring on the Democratic brand little more than a year after electing a Democratic president and adding to the Democratic majorities in Congress.

A new USA Today-Gallup Poll shows that just 41 percent of Americans have a favorable opinion of the Democratic Party, the lowest in the nearly two decades Gallup's asked the question. By contrast, 42 percent had a favorable opinion of Republicans.

So, a throw-the-bums out approach might be enough. "It is easier to get people to vote against something than for something," said Judy Smith, a Republican activist from Montgomery, Texas.

Few of the top speakers at the New Orleans conference stressed alternatives. Palin, for example, repeated her call for oil and gas drilling off U.S. coasts, but mainly stressed opposition to Obama.

Yet some prominent Republicans insist their party must move beyond the party of no label by highlighting their alternatives on such major issues as health care and taxes, wrapped into a tight package much like the Contract with America that the Republicans rolled out in 1994 before they won control of the House for the first time in four decades.

"We should decide we're going to be the party of yes," Gingrich said, urging Republicans to talk up an agenda for cutting spending and taxes, creating jobs, and reforming health care.

"There are many things that we can say yes to," said Gingrich, one of the architects of the 1994 Contract with America. "Our first answer should be let me tell you what I'm for.

Vance Martin, a Republican volunteer from Oklahoma City, applauded the approach, saying Republicans could have avoided some of the Obama policies they loathe today had they acted themselves.

"Newt is right, there are a lot of things to say yes to," Martin said.

"I'm the first to say to Republicans, where were you years ago when you had the numbers and could have done something on health care ourselves. We could have owned it. I'm a little bit frustrated that Republicans, by sitting on their hands, allowed the Democrats to own that issue."

Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi, who was chairman of the Republican National Committee in 1994, also thinks the party should spell out a positive agenda much as it did then.

"We got criticized for doing it because it was very unusual. Normally the out party tries to make the midterm election a negative referendum on the in party," he said.

But the 1994 contract was entirely positive, he said, promising that the House would vote on 10 things to reform the way government worked without any mentions of then-President Bill Clinton or the Democrats.

"It is useful to give voters something to vote FOR. I still believe that. I think it is the right thing to give people something to vote for and for them to know what you would try to do if you were in," Barbour said.

While the party has rolled out proposals on issues such as health care, its minority status prevents it from holding hearings in Congress. And the news media pays little attention.

Some Congressional Republicans have pressed for a Contract-like platform now, with an advertising campaign to get the word out. But some veterans of the '94 campaign have urged patience, noting that the 1994 Contract with America wasn't unveiled until Sept. 27, just weeks before election day.

"It's fresh then. Barbour said. "Six weeks out is long enough for people to learn what's in it."

Moreover, he argued, why get in the way while people are unhappy with Obama and the Democrats.

"When there's a horse out on the track that's an ugly horse and people don't like that horse, why do you want to put another horse out there to distract from it?" he said. "So timing's very important."

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