Win, Lose or Draw in 2016: Republicans Should Focus on Governing from Congress

Photo Credit: Andrew Bossi

If you were a Roman gladiator would you want to be the guy with the trident and net or the sword and shield?

If you were a Reagan Republican would you rather have a Republican Congress (House and Senate) or a Republican presidency?

For 60 years — from 1932 to 1994 — that was a moot question for Republicans. They “knew” they could “never” control the House and Senate. Democrats held the House for 60 of those 62 years and the Senate for 53 of the 62 years.

Republicans focused on winning and holding the presidency as the only possible way to protect the US from the Soviet Union and to wield the veto against the Democrat Congresses “road to serfdom.” All facets of the Republican Party (fundraising, communications, political organizing, and GOTV efforts) were focused on electing a presidential candidate.

And Republicans did often win the presidency: Ike, Ike, Nixon, Nixon, Reagan, Reagan, Bush, Bush, Bush. From 1952 to 1992, The GOP held the presidency for 28 of 40 years.

Democrats were content to govern from Congress — driving tax policy, spending policy and directing the executive branch with appropriations riders requiring or forbidding how the president could spend money. Government grew. Entitlements created a European social welfare state untouchable by the executive branch. From time to time the Democrats won the presidency, and they pushed through a series of new programs: the New Deal (1934–36) and the Great Society (1964–66).

Republicans found that the presidential bully pulpit was a weak rope to push and the veto a weapon of limited power.

But in 1994, Republicans captured the House and Senate. They held the House for 18 of the next 22 years. They held the Senate for 12.5 of those years.

From 1994 to 2000, “The Clinton Years,” a Republican Congress won a cut in the capital gains tax from 28% to 20%. They forced spending down from Clinton’s planned spending by more than $200 billion/year and balanced the budget. They enacted welfare reform, the first major entitlement reform. None of this was done in the Reagan or George H.W. Bush presidential years.

During the Bush years, there was a return to congressional infantilism. The Republican leaders in the House and Senate could have told incoming President George W. Bush — good to see you. Here are the bills we passed under Clinton that he vetoed — so sign them. And if you have any good ideas leave them with the secretary. Instead, they dropped their agenda that had been vetted in congressional hearings, debated in the press and tested over years of campaigning.

Presidential initiatives are often thought up in the midst of campaigns to respond to some personal challenge of the candidates. They are the personal projects of one person, not the party as a whole.

When congressional Republicans followed the President into the war in Iraq and the subsequent decisions to stay and occupy the country, they lost control of Congress in 2006 and 2008. A very expensive lesson in Presidential leadership overriding Congress.

When the GOP came back into power in 2010, the Republican House wrestled Obama to the mat and won $2.2 trillion in spending restraint from his spending plans, a real sequester that brought government spending from Obama’s 24% of GDP to 20% of GDP in two years. They made 85% of the Bush tax cuts permanent- something Bush could not do with a GOP House and Senate and GOP presidency. Republicans also had a series of temporary business tax cuts like business expensing and R and D tax credits made permanent.

Winning the presidency is a guarantee of a Republican president for four years and maybe eight. Republican presidents can turn on a dime — Nixon gave us wage and price controls, tax hikes, and Watergate.

Bush 41 supported gun control. Holding the House and Senate is a more stable conservative base. It does not zig-zag based on one politician’s needs — the president.

So Reagan Republicans should focus on maintaining the House and Senate and periodically capturing the presidency with a fellow or lady with enough working digits to sign congressional legislation. Fundraising, policy focus and party building should start with the Congress. The presidency is a second dessert.

So:

Presidency or Congress?

First choice: Both.

Second choice: Congress.

Like what I discussed here? Check out my podcast where I delve further into this topic!