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Republicans Need to See Past the Hedgerows And Push an Agenda

Despite the best of plans, the first days and weeks of the Normandy invasion was rough going. The beach landings were costlier than pre-invasion estimates. The weather didn’t cooperate. And maneuvering through the hedgerows that covered the French countryside proved to be a more difficult task than expected. [IMGCAP(1)]

In the end, though, cohesion, determination, and a willingness to adapt to changing circumstances enabled the Allies to overcome the “tough slog” of the summer of ’44 and break out of Normandy onto the flat plains of France, where they could engage on more favorable terrain.

Why the history lesson? Because it’s a good way of looking at the position of Congressional Republicans right now as they “slog” through the Bolton U.N. ambassadorial nomination, the “nuclear” option on federal judges and the ethics charges swirling around House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas).

For the bases of each party, these issues represent fundamental tests of principle, much like the Terri Schiavo case, which was the first skirmish in what has been a guerrilla war between the parties during the past few weeks. It is a fight Republicans didn’t ask for.

The president’s agenda is an aggressive one, and Hill Republicans, who began the session with a full plate, got off to a good start with the passage of tort reform, bankruptcy reform legislation, and the budget. Lately, however, they have found themselves battling in the “hedgerows” of base politics, which have drawn media attention away from their legislative accomplishments.

That’s not to say either the Republican base or the hedgerow issues are unimportant. The question of whether to allow Democrats to filibuster Bush’s judicial nominees is far more than a matter of parliamentary maneuver or even short-term partisan advantage.

This fight has become intensely ideological. The bases of both parties care deeply about it, because they understand that its outcome could have profound societal consequences for generations. What Republicans have discovered, however, is that there is no easy way through these base “hedgerow” issues. They’ve got to hunker down and slug it out, regardless of the short-term political cost, because it is a fight about principle.

At the end of the day, they are likely to prevail; what I’m concerned about is the day after. Once out of the hedgerows, Hill Republicans must break out fast with a forward-looking, positive issue agenda that particularly appeals to Americans in the Big Middle — the centrist/“solutionist”voters.

George W. Bush accomplished something remarkable with these voters in the 2004 election, establishing a framework for a long-term Republican majority coalition. “Security moms,” seniors, Catholics, middle-income voters and Hispanics are part of the Big Middle that gave Bush his majority last fall.

For Congressional Republicans, keeping their promises to the base is critical — but so is keeping their promises to this important Middle on a range of domestic issues, if they are to solidify the winning Republican coalition of last year’s election.

Clearly, the focus on the hedgerow issues has cost Republicans some support in recent weeks, because these are not the issues that appeal to most Big Middle voters. They want action on the economy, jobs, gas prices, taxes, and national security. They want Congress and both parties to address issues like education, health care and retirement.

Republicans should give them what they want: an aggressive legislative breakout agenda that keeps the floor calendars full from the moment the hedgerow issues are dealt with until the August recess. Working cooperatively, House and Senate Republicans can mount a legislative offensive to gain the initiative this summer and put the Democrats on the defensive.

In 1995, one of Newt Gingrich’s most effective tactics was his “First 100 Days” pledge to bring every one of the Contract with America’s provisions to the House floor for a vote. I’m not suggesting the sometimes round-the-clock floor schedule that Gingrich employed, but once the hedgerow issues have been dealt with, Republicans need to be ready to run hard and fast legislatively and change tactics seamlessly if the political situation changes.

With control of both Houses, Republicans have a major strategic advantage and should use it. In the Senate, bring up the energy bill. Make the Democrats filibuster if necessary but get it on the floor for passage.

Then take up a series of bills — medical liability reform, welfare reauthorization, the omnibus health care reform bill, legislation to make the president’s tax cuts permanent, Social Security. What matters is quick action.

Don’t let the Democrats control the agenda or the momentum. If they threaten to obstruct or filibuster, call their bluff. Let the American people see who wants to work and who wants to play politics.

In the House, Republicans can continue to turn up the pressure on Democrats by accelerating the appropriations process, and by using the bully pulpit within their districts to help Senate Republicans, fighting against Democrat obstructionism, broaden popular support for quick action.

In the upcoming crucial “break out” weeks of summer, the real opportunity for Republicans is to govern. Voters reward those who do and punish those who don’t — just as Senate Democrats learned in 2002 and 2004.

David Winston is president of The Winston Group, a Republican polling firm.

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