WASHINGTON – During political campaigns, candidates usually tell voters what they would do if elected. But Sen. Mitch McConnell had a different idea.
“This is not the time to lay out an agenda,” the Kentucky Republican told reporters four days before Election Day.
A week or so before that, the man who would be the next Senate majority leader provided more details of his theory. “It’s never a good idea to tell the other side what the first play is going to be.”
No, but it might be a good idea to tell the voters what you’re up to.
Republicans won control of the Senate late Tuesday night and padded their majority in the House, giving the party unified control of Congress for the first time in eight years. And McConnell, who won re-election with ease, is positioned to become the leader of a new Senate majority.
It was enough, electorally, for Republicans to say they were against whatever President Barack Obama was for. Preliminary exit polls found that 33 percent of voters were registering displeasure with Obama, versus 19 percent who were expressing support.
But now comes the hard part. Because Republicans didn’t run on an agenda other than antipathy toward all things Obama, they created a policy vacuum – and it’s about to be filled by a swirl of competing, and contradictory, proposals.
Republicans find themselves with neither a consensus program nor a clear hierarchy among congressional leaders, the half-dozen aspiring presidential candidates in Congress and the various governors and former officeholders who also think they should be the party’s 2016 standard-bearer. Republicans have set themselves up for chaos, if not outright fratricide.
Congressional leaders will be pulled in opposite directions by would-be presidential contender Ted Cruz of Texas and his expanded band of Senate ideologues (who would like to abolish the IRS, the EPA and the Education Department, chip away at banking regulations and hold umpteen more votes on eliminating Obamacare) and by the large number of vulnerable Republicans who will be on the ballot in 2016 (and would like to see the next Congress achieve tangible progress).
Republicans in 2014 decided to forgo a 1994-style Contract with America or 2010 Pledge to America. The closest they came to a unified agenda was a list of bromides proffered by Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus. Among the bold stands: “our veterans have earned our respect” and “the best anti-poverty program is a strong family and a good job.”
With this plethora of platitudes posing as an agenda, it’s no surprise exit polls found no mandate for Republicans. Only 41 percent of voters had a positive view of Obama, but only 38 percent had a positive view of Republican leaders in Congress. The economy was by far the dominant issue in voters’ minds (70 percent thought it is in bad shape), and Obamacare didn’t seem to be a major factor: Forty-seven percent thought the law went too far, but 48 percent thought it either didn’t go far enough or was about right.
This gives no advantage to either side in the Republicans’ internecine struggle. On one side will be Cruz, who told The Washington Post’s Sebastian Payne this week that the first order of business for a GOP Senate should be launching more hearings into President Obama’s “abuse of power.” He’s also pushing an effort to use parliamentary maneuvers to repeal Obamacare with a simple majority – the sort of provocation that would quickly return Washington to government-shutdown crises. Cruz, in a USA Today op-ed, also said he wants to pursue a flat tax, kill the Export-Import Bank, audit the Fed and block comprehensive immigration reform.
On the opposite side is Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, a George W. Bush administration veteran who wants to “come to the table” with Obama on wide-ranging energy legislation, free-trade deals, bipartisan tax reform and a return to responsible budgeting rather than stopgap spending bills. For this to happen, Portman notes in National Review, “all we are missing is leadership.”
Without leadership, it’s every Republican for himself. Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Rand Paul of Kentucky, prospective presidential candidates both, have dueling tax plans. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, reports Politico’s Jake Sherman, “seems willing to pass small-bore bills on issues ranging from energy to health care to taxes.” By contrast, Heritage Action, which influences congressional conservatives, wants the opposite: Republicans should “focus on the big things” such as repealing Obamacare, rather than finding common ground on spending bills.
That’s the consequence of an agenda-free campaign: a majority without a mission.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.