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Albert Hunt: GOP’s ‘take-no-risks’ strategy is unraveling

  • Bloomberg News
  • Published Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2014, at 12 a.m.

Some Republicans envisioned a successful rope-a-dope strategy for this year’s elections: Don’t make mistakes, and let the Democrats stew in the juices of Obamacare and a strapped middle class.

That take-no-risks approach is unraveling. Congressional Republicans are offering proposals on major matters, and the party’s right wing – whose members Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., called “wacko birds” – is omnipresent in Washington, D.C., and across the U.S.

Congressional Republicans have introduced initiatives on immigration, health care, and economic mobility and poverty that are creating policy and political fissures. There were four separate Republican responses to President Obama’s State of the Union address last week.

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, wants his chamber to pass immigration reform. Any compromise that is acceptable to Hispanic and Asian-American groups draws fire from the party’s sizable nativist bloc and political consultants who don’t want to divert attention from their campaign against health care reform. The speaker’s task is enormously complicated, the prospects uphill.

On health care, three leading Republican senators recently offered an alternative to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, one they say is more market-centric. But fewer people would be covered, the prohibition on discriminating against people with pre-existing conditions would be weakened, and the authors already are backing away from a proposal to deny tax benefits for some employer-based plans. Many Democrats would relish a debate over the competing plan.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., a contender for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, took on economic inequality by proposing to expand the earned income tax credit for poor people without children; Obama cited Rubio’s proposal while offering a similar one during his State of the Union address. Rubio deserves credit for trying, but he has gotten tripped up in the specifics: whether the costs should be offset by other reductions in the tax break for the working poor or whether the entire credit should be reshaped.

And the wacko birds are flocking, with a special eye on women and gays.

On women, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee wasn’t an outlier with his claim that Democrats believe women can’t control their libidos. Ken Buck, the right-wing Senate candidate in Colorado and a cancer survivor, inexplicably suggested pregnancy was like cancer. This is the same man who in a 2010 race – when his opponent was a woman – said people should vote for him because “I don’t wear high heels.” He also compared being gay to being an alcoholic.

Then there is the always provocative Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, who said judges who rule in favor of same-sex marriage “need some basic plumbing lessons.” Or Randy Weber, his fellow Texas representative, who tweeted before the State of the Union that he was waiting for the “Kommandant-In-Chef,” who he called the “Socialistic dictator who’s been feeding US a line or is it ‘A-Lying?’” Taxpayers pay Weber $174,000 a year.

Out in the provinces, the right-wing base is restless. The Arizona Republican Party recently censured McCain for leftist tendencies. In a few months, state party platforms will be drafted; keep your eye on Texas, where Republicans have called for the elimination of 16 federal Cabinet departments or agencies and have come out against promoting “critical thinking” skills in education.

In Iowa, some activists are plotting to dump the state’s moderately conservative lieutenant governor, Kim Reynolds, at the party’s convention. Gov. Terry Branstad, a Republican who is likely to be re-elected, is the longest-serving U.S. governor, and there are expectations he will leave during his next term. Unless the ultra-right-wingers have their way, Reynolds then would become the state’s first female governor (Iowans have never elected a woman to the Senate or House either).

Democrats have their own crazies on the left, but they aren’t as prevalent or influential.

History and polling data suggest Republicans should do well in November, keeping their House majority and with an outside shot at taking control of the Senate. But some of these big issues and the wacko birds could unsettle these prospects.

Albert R. Hunt writes for Bloomberg News.

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