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Faulkner and Riehl: Republican Opportunities Lost

Republicans are wondering how to confront President Barack Obama’s second-term second wind. His new initiatives, new appointments, and success in the word-wars on the budget have overwhelmed Republicans in Congress and the punditocracy. After ceding 789 days of political positioning to their opponents since the GOP’s 2010 victories, Republicans have now spent the first weeks of 2013 bungling opportunities to make a difference.

Only in the Republicans’ parallel universe could supposedly intelligent people sift through the electoral debris of 2012 and think that their only challenge is creating better campaign ads with better media soundbites. Worse, they arrived at this non-epiphany by listening to political consultants who derive their income from creating these same soundbites — the same consultants who wasted hundreds of millions of dollars, were 100 percent wrong in their assumptions, their polls and their predictions.

Congressional Republicans should take a look in the mirror to find who is to blame for their current predicament.

Since decisively winning the 2010 midterms, Republicans in Congress and their acolytes in the conservative media have consistently missed the opportunity to define themselves and present compelling alternative policies. They appear to have no platform — in fact, “conservatives” no longer have a coherent idea of who they are. There appears to be no content behind their “messaging.”

The dreadful examination of former Sen. Chuck Hagel is a case in point. Hectoring diatribes over the war in Iraq only perpetuate the image of conservatives unwilling to reflect on their actions in light of the facts. Never mind that as a traditional conservative, Hagel’s view on the Iraqi misadventure is much more in line with decades of Republican thinking prior to the neocon takeover of GOP foreign policy.

The soundbite strategy is not working. A recent Pew Survey shows Americans disapprove of Republican Congressional leadership by 66 percent while only 19 percent approve. That is a staggering 47-point negative. Gallup’s survey is equally horrific, with 25 percent approving and 67 percent disapproving — a 42-point negative gap.

These dreadful scores are only part of the problem. President Obama and congressional Democrats are framing the fiscal battles in ways highly favorable to their cause while painting Republicans into a microscopic corner. This is smart rhetorical strategy and stands to permanently marginalize the GOP.

Politics often comes down to the definition of terms — Democrats today have the upper hand. Republicans, even those few moderates who remain, are now “extremists.” Democrats, even radicals, are now “progressives.” Government spending is now called “investment,” thanks to a spin factory gem from President Bill Clinton. Spending cuts of any magnitude are dismissed as damaging to economic recovery. Republican responses are mired in bureaucratic language unknowable to normal people or piled up with hyperpartisan rhetoric that leaves no room for compromise.

As the Hagel hearing demonstrated, Republicans have been vague and inconsistent about their supposed goal of cutting spending. They trumpet that ideology in soundbites, but ideology is not governance; Americans continue to see the president as more competent in that task. At the Hagel hearing, we did not hear any Republicans pointing out that the bureaucracy and wasteful spending are as bad at the Pentagon as anywhere else.

Perhaps this is what the psychologists call cognitive dissonance — Republicans are now mostly unwilling to hold serious hearings on government spending or mismanagement because so many of them blindly supported Bush-era boondoggles, both foreign and domestic. They are caught in hypocrisy of their own making, with only soundbites left for a platform. The GOP did not even hold hearings on Republican Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn’s annual Waste Report, a longtime staple of reasonable oversight. Only CSPAN’s Book TV gave Coburn a proper forum to discuss his exhaustive research on government waste.

Having one party dominate policy and legislation while the other retreats into mindless and sporadic venting of anger is unhealthy for America. Those who wish to hold power accountable and desire a reasonable dialogue on the role and cost of government in the 21st century must stage an intervention. The elephant in the room is sick, and its infirmity harms all of us.

Scot Faulkner was director of personnel under President Ronald Reagan, chief administrative officer of the House, and is author of “Naked Emperors: The Failure of the Republican Revolution.” Jonathan Riehl is a communications consultant for political campaigns and national nonprofit organizations and teaches communications studies.

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