Why Eric Cantor Can’t Rescue the GOP’s “Lost” Message

Terrance Heath

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor is working hard to rescue the GOP’s “lost” message. You can’t blame him for trying. There are, of course, several problems. Not the least of which is that it looks like GOP leadership still believes “message” and “tone” were what worked against them in November, and are the biggest problems the party has to tackle between now and, say, 2016.

As usual, Eric Cantor couldn’t be more wrong. Cantor can’t rescue the GOP’s “lost” message, because the Republican message isn’t lost on American voters. Americans hear the GOP message loud and clear. They know what it means for them and their families. That’s why they’ve rejected it.

You gotta give him credit. Eric Cantor is trying. (Not in the usual sense of the word, which is more often the case where Cantor is concerned.) The House minority leader is serious about rebranding the House GOP. He followed an awkward visit to a predominantly African-American D.C. private  school, for the purpose of touting an expansion of the District’s “Opportunity Scholarship” voucher program, with a “major speech” at the American Enterprise Institute.

Indeed, Cantor’s remarks during his visit to the Preparatory School of D.C. hinted at the speech he would give, the purpose of which he described during his remarks to The Huffington Post:

“My purpose is to talk about why we’re doing what we’re doing. It is to help people,” Cantor told HuffPost.

“We talked a lot in the last election about the need for a growing economy. We talked a lot about the need for managing down the debt and deficit,” he said. “But there’s a reason why we’re advocating those things. We’re advocating those things because we want to help people.”

As The Huffington Post article pointed out, it’s unclear to some Americans what the GOP wants from its policies, except to increase “freedom” and profit margins. For those Americans, Cantor’s speech probably didn’t make it any clearer what, if anything, the House GOP intends to do within the next two years to “make life work” — beyond federal dollars for private schools, jobs policies borrowed from Dan Quayle, taking a hatchet to heath care reform, and applying parts of Paul Ryan’s old budget to Medicare and Medicaid.

Put all these small-bore ideas together, and it hardly adds up to set of policies that will “make life work” for very many Americans.

I was particularly amused at when Cantor finally got around to taxes, and lamented the complexity of today’s tax forms and the difficulty he claims “most families” experience in filling them out. “What tax form are you supposed to fill out, is it more beneficial to file jointly as a married couple or separately?,” Cantor asks, before calling for a “fairer, simpler tax code.” For my family, a “simpler, fairer tax code” would be one that allowed my husband and I to file joint federal tax returns. But Cantor and his budget-conscious GOP have spent $3 million defending the Defense of Marriage Act, and keeping my family’s taxes much higher than they would be if we could file jointly. So already the GOP’s policies don’t “make life work” for my family.

That’s the inherent problem in this “rebranding” of the GOP, and the reason the handful of policies Cantor spotlighted are just watered-down, pared-down versions of the same old conservative ideas that Americans have rejected in the last couple of elections. When you’re ideologically opposed to the very idea of government, it’s unlikely that you’re going to use the power of government to “make life work” for anybody. When you don’t believe the government should be in the business of helping people, you’re not going to use it to make life better.

As I wrote earlier, after GOP leadership adjourned the House without voting on disaster relief for Hurricane Sandy victims,  disdain for government is a Republican value.

Why does it shock Republicans like Chris Christie and Peter King that the GOP could screw its own on Sandy relief? Like I’ve said before, conservatives don’t believe government doesn’t work. They believe it shouldn’t. And when they get elected they make damn sure it can’t.

… Maybe Christie, King, and a handful of other outraged Republicans forgot that disdain for government is a Republican value. That disdain is accompanied by a disregard for much of what government does, but especially what it does for “people who are starving and and freezing.”

Disaster relief is one of this things that government does better than state and local governments.

And for conservatives, that just won’t do. Again: Conservatives don’t just believe that government doesn’t work. They believe that it shouldn’t work. And when they get elected, they make damn sure it doesn’t work. That’s why George W. Bush’s FEMA failed the victims of Hurricane Katrina.

That’s why the the 2010 election turned out to be the pyrrhic victory for the GOP that I predicted it would be.

First, let’s just face it. For the next couple of years, at least, this is the end of any progress on jobs or the economy. Democrats will probably have to spend most of their time defending what they’ve gotten done. Whatever legitimate gripes progressives had with the outgoing Democratic Congress, they got a lot done. More, in fact, than most others. Ezra Klein called it a “Do-Something Congress.”

That this has been the most “do-something” Congress we’ve seen in 40 years hasn’t made much of an impression on the public. Multiple polls have found that only a minority of voters know that the 111th Congress got more done than most congresses. That’s true even among Democrats. Nor has their productivity made the 111th Congress popular. But if they failed as politicians, they succeeded as legislators. And legislating is, at least in theory, what they came to Washington to do.

With the GOP taking over the House, the likelihood is that we’re faced with another “Do-Nothing” Congress, at least in term of creating jobs, fixing the economy, etc. As Bill pointed out before election day, the country is about to be saddled with a Congress that not only doesn’t work, but one determined not to let the President work either.

That’s not just because of gridlock, though there will be gridlock. It’s because conservative philosophy basically holds that a “Do-Nothing Congress” is exactly as it should be. And that’s exactly the GOP’s victory may be a Pyrrhic victory. Hemmed in by by a base that wants one thing, major (though anonymous) donors that want another, and American voters angry that not enough been done to ease their economic pain — and who want more done — Republicans won’t be able to make it work without abandoning their base, their donors, the basic tenets of conservatism, or Americans demanding solutions the GOP just doesn’t have.

It won’t work. That’s what we face for the next two years. The best chance Democrats have for 2012 is to give voters a clear choice that does work, by offering solutions founded in progressive values, making the case for them, and fighting for them.

And that’s exactly what’s come to pass. The 112th Congress became “the single most despised Congress of all time.” It was less popular than Communism, and even less popular than George W. Bush at his lowest, because it got so little done. The blame belongs almost entirely to the the House GOP, where policies that might “make life work” for millions of Americans go to die.

This was especially true where the economy is concerned. House Republicans have had plenty of opportunities to get off their tushes and “make life work” for millions of Americans caught in the vise grip of this recession. They just weren’t interested.

It’s a fair question, and with John Boehner mouthing off about the president betting on “failed policies” and Mitt Romney claiming the President has no plan for economic growth, it’s a perfect opportunity for Democrats to respond by telling Republicans – and America – “We got your jobs bills right here.” More jobs legislation that Republicans have bothered to come up with, even.

First, though, let’s put things in perspective. When John Boehner accuses Democrats of stalling Republicans’ so-called jobs bills, let’s remember that this is the same guy who said “So be it” to reports that the GOP’s job-killing cuts would cost thousands their jobs.

When Mitt Romney says the President has not jobs agenda, let’s remember this: Mitt Romney says a lot of things that aren’t true. For example, Romney claim that he has presented a detailed jobs plan while the president has not just isn’t true.

Remember, that if anybody is betting on failed policies, it’s Mitt Romney. Let’s remember that Romney’s policies are essentially George W. Bush’s policies – the same George W. Bush most Americans still blame for the economic crisis that Obama basically inherited.

Romney’s “jobless plan” is the same old job-killing madness that went on under Bush, which resulted in a lost decade of zero net job creation. It’s likely to create more jobs in China than in the U.S. It won’t lower the unemployment rate, and will add thousands more to the ranks of the unemployed – like teachers, police officers, and fire fighters. Apparently, Republicans think losing those jobs is a good thing. That’s why congressional Republicans sat on their hands while state and local governments laid-off thousands, and refused to save those jobs. Is it any wonder a majority of Americans have a low opinion of Republicans in the House?

Maybe someone should remind Romney, Boehner, and the rest of Republicans that while they were busy offering bills that are not about jobs, President Obama handed Congress a comprehensive piece of legislation called the American Jobs Act. It was the centerpiece of his State of the Union address.

…  Let’s place blame where blame is due, Congress did act. Senate Republicans successfully filibustered it, but eventually allowed the Senate to pass one small piece of it. House Republicans whittled it almost down to sawdust, and then passed what was left.

To be fair, Republicans got their usual assists from depressingly predictable Democratic bickering and cowardice. But most of the blame belongs to the GOP. Republicans should consult a mirror, if they’re looking for someone to blame for inaction on jobs – and the consequences.

Instead, Republicans spent most of their time introducing their own “jobs” bills that were not about jobs, and blocking at least 15 Democratic efforts to create or protect American jobs.

Thanks to the antics of House Republicans, the 112th Congress wasn’t just unproductive, as Ezra Klein pointed out, it was counterproductive. Not only did the GOP do nothing to improve the health of the economy, Republican obstructionism actually damaged the economy, all but halted the recovery, and damn near destroyed our credit rating.

The 112th found legislating so difficult that lawmakers repeatedly created artificial deadlines for consequences and catastrophes intended to spur them to act. But like Wile E. Coyote with his endless supply of Acme products, when the 112th set a trap, the only sure bet was that it would explode in its collective face, forcing leaders to construct yet another hair- trigger legislative contraption.

The near-shutdown of the federal government in early 2011 was the first of these self-detonated disasters, the near-breach of the debt ceiling in August 2011 was the most damaging, and the fiscal cliff was the dumbest. In each case, Congress mainlined a dose of fear and uncertainty into an economy already beset by too much of both. In each case, the deadline failed to spur responsibility; instead, Congress punted on hard decisions while setting up a new deadline to supplant the old, discarded one.

In that way, the 112th ended as it began: by creating a mess it couldn’t clean up. The resolution, such as it is, of the fiscal cliff simply sets up another fight in the weeks ahead over the debt ceiling and sequestration. Continued fear and uncertainty over the impending battle is the legacy of the 112th to the nation’s economy. Thanks, guys.

And after all that, Republicans failed to accomplish their number one goal — bringing the government to a grinding halt, crashing the economy, and then convincing voters to blame it all on Barack Obama and the Democratic party.

It didn’t work for the same reason that the GOP’s efforts to change its “tone” and make nice with women and minorities won’t work.

The voters in the diverse coalition that rewarded president Obama with reelection, and Democrats with gains in the the Senate and the House, did not vote as they did because of “bribes” or “gifts.” They made judgments based on how government had helped them, and thus would help others, because they believed that’s what government should be about “addressing the needs and desires of people.”

If Republicans think that these groups were merely put off by your “tone,” you guys are fooling yourselves even more than you want to fool voters. Your “tone” in this election only confirmed what women, youth, and minority voters suspected all along. Without a record of even attempting to address their concerns through policies that jibe with your principles, these voters will see right through you.

Your walk won’t match your talk, and it will show. Voters will know that you’re still not that into them, and they won’t be remotely into you.

Ultimately, that’s why Cantor can’t rescue the GOP’s “lost” message with a lot of happy talk. Sooner or later, voters will see that your talk doesn’t match your walk, and realize that all you’ve got it talk.

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