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McConnell Outlines Strategy for ’12 Takeover

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell laid out his strategy on Wednesday for avoiding the kind of political missteps that cost the GOP the presidency in 1996 as Republicans begin their bid to retake the Senate and White House in 2012.

GOP aides described the plan that McConnell outlined in an exhaustive presentation during a closed-door luncheon for Republicans, including newly elected members who have not yet been sworn in. One senior GOP aide described it as providing “context for being successful legislatively based on lessons we can draw from a similarly situated Congress and electorate.”

Although the strategy was presented to Senate Republicans only, GOP aides said McConnell and Speaker-designate John Boehner (R-Ohio) have broad agreement on its general themes.

In addition to reviewing the GOP’s successful efforts to return from the political wilderness over the last two years, McConnell’s presentation included a “full and comprehensive” review of the lessons from the period between the 1994 election and President Bill Clinton’s re-election in 1996, and how to apply them over the next two years, according to a GOP aide.

McConnell began developing his post-election strategy several months ago, directing staff to comb through polling data, news clippings and memoirs by former Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.), former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (Kan.) and their Democratic counterparts to cull together a list of lessons.

Chief most among those lessons, according to McConnell, is that Republicans need to understand they have effectively staked out “the middle” as far as voters are concerned and that everything they do should be geared toward maintaining that control.

To control the middle, McConnell argued, the GOP must carefully manage the public’s expectations of what Republicans can and cannot do between now and Election Day 2012.

Since President Barack Obama has veto power, he can easily shoot down any measure that he can effectively portray as outside the mainstream, much as Clinton did with huge parts of the GOP’s agenda in 1995 and 1996.

According to a second GOP aide, McConnell also “pointed back in retrospect [at] what they miscalculated,” explaining that when Republicans swept into power in 1994, “the public had all these ideas of what they’d accomplish because of the ‘Contract With America.’” While much of the contract was eventually adopted, the public’s perception of its effects had been blown so far out of proportion by Republicans that the expectations were impossible to meet.

McConnell also warned that Republicans need to avoid falling into the same traps with the media that Gingrich and other GOP leaders fell into in 1994. He noted that Republicans in 1994 and 1995 made incendiary statements or off-the-cuff remarks that were then used against them. He added that Gingrich and others have since acknowledged they needed greater discipline in dealing with the media.

While Republicans have had a fairly friendly relationship with the media since their electoral successes on Nov. 2, “the honeymoon they’re in is not a constant status” and media coverage will not always be so easy, the aide explained.

McConnell argued that his research shows that while the public generally agreed with the Republican agenda at the time, Democrats were able to win on issues such as Medicare and the budget in large part because the GOP lacked an effective, disciplined messaging strategy.

For instance, McConnell played clips of Republicans discussing large, abstract budget numbers in interviews on their efforts to cut spending. He then compared those to clips of Clinton personalizing his counterarguments and using language that avoided overemphasizing numbers.

McConnell wrapped up his presentation saying that Republicans must apply these lessons to their coming fights with the Obama administration and Democrats over the budget and spending.

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