GOP Vows to Get Along

Posted December 9, 2008 at 6:41pm

Faced with having to set their party’s agenda and messaging themes for the first time since President George W. Bush’s election in 2000, House and Senate Republican leaders are preparing to significantly expand their coordination efforts, Republicans said this week.

House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) have coordinated on issues from energy policy to the Iraq War over the past two years, and Republicans said that both the leaders and their staff have developed strong working relationships over that period.

Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.), incoming Policy Committee chairman, said he thought the leadership teams worked together well in the 110th Congress and that Republicans may find themselves at times working more closely with the White House than lawmakers in the Democratic Party.

“I thought we did quite a bit of that last year. I thought McConnell and Boehner worked very, very well together,” Ensign said.

Boehner spokesman Michael Steel agreed, noting that the two offices coordinated regularly. “The House Republican leader’s press office talks on a daily basis” with McConnell’s staff, Steel said.

But Republicans said those efforts will likely expand in the coming months as the two minority leaders look to reenergize their party in the wake of November’s stinging electoral defeats.

According to senior Republicans, leadership aides in the two chambers have already begun preliminary discussions on how to begin the process of rebranding the party and moving forward from the heavy losses suffered in the past two electoral cycles. Aides have convened “meetings of top House and Senate communicators to expand on our efforts from the 110th,” one aide said, explaining that Congress remaining in session has slowed the rebuilding process.

Veteran House and Senate aides said the GOP makeover, while likely to be difficult, will be aided by the departure of the unpopular Bush in January.

One former House aide noted that previous attempts by House and Senate Republicans to coordinate message and agenda were hampered by the fact that Bush, as the party’s leader, largely handed down the GOP’s agenda.

“Part of the reason it failed is that we had a White House that was identifying [the GOP brand] for everybody,” and McConnell and Boehner were left to find ways to implement that identity, the aide said. Now, however, they will largely be tasked with reinventing the Republican message, a process that aides said will take time.

“A new administration presents an opportunity for McConnell and Boehner to begin a new branding for the party unencumbered by old rhetoric and old ideas,” a Senate leadership aide added.

“There are already areas where we agree and sound the same and can build on. Then, there are areas that are unknown,” a Senate GOP aide said.

For instance, this aide said, “where are House Republicans going to go on social issues?” The aide also said that much of Boehner and McConnell’s success will be based on what President-elect Barack Obama does over the first several months of his administration. Ultimately, this staffer said, it will be a long-term process of developing a coordinated message. “I just think we need time to figure out where we are.”

Ensign and other Republicans acknowledged that the presence of the Bush administration, particularly in its waning days, often caused some disconnects. “There were a lot of times when we didn’t agree with the White House,” he said. “I bet that happens with the Democrats. … We may actually end up working with the White House on something that the Democrats in the House and Senate don’t agree with.”

Ron Bonjean, chief executive officer of the Bonjean Co. and a former top aide for members of House and Senate leadership, said it will be vital for Republicans in both chambers to communicate.

He noted that other than on the contentious issue of earmarks, the GOP has the opportunity to promote and market strong themes if it is able to band together.

“In 2006, House and Senate Democrats were able to label Republicans as incompetent. In 2008, they used the word ‘change,’” he said, stressing that Republicans needed to harness this branding technique and use it to their advantage.

In their final few years in the minority, Congressional Democrats regularly met to coordinate message and political strategy — an effort that many believe helped them gain influence against a then-powerful GOP majority. Democratic leadership has continued to meet across the Dome since assuming control of Congress in 2006.

Republicans seem to be increasingly aware that coordination is needed in order to assume a stronger minority position.

In one example, the House Republican Conference is bringing on Marc Short as its new chief of staff. Short previously served as the top aide to Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) and is respected for his ability to explain the complexities of the Senate.

“Marc has many outstanding qualifications, and his work in the Senate and respect he garnered during his tenure there was just one of the reasons Chairman Pence hired him,” said Matt Lloyd, communications director for newly elected Conference Chairman Mike Pence (R-Ind.).

Short’s hiring also could help quell any concerns that moderates and other Republicans may have had about Pence’s election. Pence is fiercely conservative on both fiscal and social issues, and his presence in the upper echelons of the House’s GOP leadership has caused some to worry about how he will interact with the Senate. But Short’s hiring could ease any concerns, and several Senate aides noted that Boehner’s strong control of the House GOP should mean few conflicts — at least initially.

“There is absolutely no question that it’s still Boehner’s show in the House. … My guess is that you’re not going to be seeing any messaging coming out that doesn’t have the stamp of approval from the leader,” a Senate GOP leadership aide said.