In two short years, the nation’s voters will give the Biden administration a midterm grade on its performance.
The last two times that a Democratic president won the White House, the GOP was able to retake the House during the midterms.
In 1994, Hillary health care, gun-control legislation and the Clinton administration’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policies helped to propel the Republicans to a historic and unlikely sweep of the House, giving them control for the first time in 38 years.
In 2010, the Tea Party revolt against the Obama administration’s muscling through of its health care plan helped the GOP to win another stunning victory.
Joe Biden is entering the White House with the weakest mandate in history. His campaign made no great promises, had no great themes, and cleverly kept the candidate hidden in his basement, away from any pesky reporter who might dare to ask a difficult question.
Winning presidential campaigns usually come with some coattails in the first term, but the Democrats almost lost the House this time around, an unprecedented result.
For House Republicans, this poses a difficult strategic choice: Do they obstruct everything that the weakened House majority throws at them and risk being called “do-nothing Republicans” or do they find ways to cooperate on issues that could benefit them and their new members, many of whom will be facing their own tough reelection campaigns?
I believe that the Republicans need to both create a positive agenda that can capture the imagination of the voters and paint a dark picture of what continued Democratic dominance would mean to America’s families and their livelihoods.
In 1994, the Republicans came up with the Contract with America, a series of written promises that reassured voters that the GOP had a positive plan to return power back to the people. That document not only proved useful as a campaign device, it also bound Republicans to a game plan that helped them to govern once they took office.
In 2010, the new majority agreed on only one thing: They strongly disliked President Obama and his efforts to make America more radical. But that negative energy never translated into a positive vision for governance, and Republicans could never find a coherent strategy to engage with the president on their terms, leading to the downfall of John Boehner and the rise of Donald Trump.
The Republican leadership needs its entire conference to buy in on a game plan to take back the House. That means all Republicans have to pitch in to raise money for their colleagues. That means all Republicans need to stay on the reservation when it comes to legislative tactics. That means all Republicans need to respect the pressures faced by their colleagues in tough seats. And that means that all Republicans should be smart about who they work with and who they don’t work with on the other side of the aisle. Co-sponsoring legislation with the most endangered Democrats doesn’t help our team win the next election, for example.
I worked for the Republican leadership in the early 1990s and I was surprised back then by the number of Republicans who had not only grown used to being in the minority but also kind of liked it. They didn’t have to compromise on their principles, they could spout off on any subject they wanted and they wouldn’t have to get dirty doing the real work of legislating.
But being in the majority is better than being in the minority. You get more stuff done for your constituents, you have more power to hold the administration to account, and you have a chance to actually make laws that will make this country a better place to live.
Republicans can take back the House in two years. But it is by no means a done deal. They have to work hard to unify, they need to come up with a positive governing agenda, and they need to forcefully counter the Democrats as they try to move the country sharply to the left.
Feehery is a partner at EFB Advocacy and blogs at www.thefeeherytheory.com. He served as spokesman to former Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), as communications director to former Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas) when he was majority whip and as a speechwriter to former House Minority Leader Bob Michel (R-Ill.).