Opinion Columns & Blogs

Ramesh Ponnuru: GOP should focus on future, not Obama

Conservatives need to get over President Obama. It’s time to adjust to a world in which he is never going to be on the ballot again.

That’s going to require a big change in the psychology of Republicans both in Washington and around the country. They disagree with Obama’s policies. They see in his personality narcissism untempered by warmth. They find his lectures irritating, and resent his soft press coverage.

They spent four years trying to discredit him with the public. They need to accept that they failed.

It’s still in Republicans’ interest for the public to turn on Obama, as it was in Democrats’ interest for the public to turn on President Bush the way it did in his second term. But if that happens, it will be because Obama’s health care plan becomes an undeniable failure, or the economy gets worse, or events overseas make his foreign policy look naive. It won’t be because Republicans keep denouncing him.

Republicans can and should continue to stand for their principles on the many occasions when they conflict with Obama’s. What they shouldn’t do is conceive of their near-term political task as winning a series of confrontations with the president. Because they’re unlikely to win very often. Obama has inherent advantages in political debates with more than 200 House Republicans, and his re-election will only strengthen his hand, at least for now.

The Republicans are better off sidelining Obama to the extent they can and fighting congressional Democrats – or, better yet, getting congressional Democrats to fight one another.

There are signs the party is beginning to understand this. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has said he will consider whatever gun legislation the Senate passes, putting the onus on Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. The Senate has enough pro-gun Democrats – including, historically, Reid himself – to make it an open question whether an assault-weapons ban can pass the chamber. If it fails there, Boehner can get the policy result he wants without lifting a finger. Supporters of the ban would then be disappointed with Democrats rather than enraged by Republicans.

Republicans are making the same calculation on the budget. The House temporarily lifted the debt limit on Jan. 23 in return for making the Senate pass a budget, a legal obligation it hasn’t met since 2009. Speaking for other Democratic senators, Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., says they will comply. This year, then, Democrats won’t be able to just take shots at Republican spending cuts. They will have to pass and defend the taxes and deficit spending contained in their own plan. Then they will have to take that bill to conference with the House bill.

Obama will, of course, have a strong influence on those negotiations. But he will be outside the room, and he won’t be the main subject of the news stories. When Congress uses its regular procedures to legislate instead of setting up high-stakes talks with the president, its members make him a less important figure.

The president’s liberal inaugural address furthers the Republican strategy of shrinking his presence in the congressional debate. Pundits said he had “thrown down the gauntlet,” but much of his agenda had little to do with congressional Republicans. Major changes on climate policy will come from the federal bureaucracy, not Congress, and everyone knows it. Measures recognizing same-sex marriage will probably advance, but neither Congress nor the president will have much to do with them. The president’s call for new gun laws is as much a challenge to his own party as to Republicans.

A strategy of disengagement from Obama won’t yield great policy breakthroughs for conservatives. Yet neither will a strategy of confrontation. Republicans hold a minority share of power in Washington. They shouldn’t conduct themselves in a way that gives their supporters excessive hope. And they shouldn’t give themselves a disproportionate share of ownership in the mostly dismal results of national politics.

The less they define themselves as an anti-Obama party, the more Republicans will avoid a pitfall that conservative pollster David Winston has identified: The public sees hostility as playing a more important role than principle in Republicans’ opposition to Obama. A party that aspires to governing the country should avoid looking petty.

There are limits to how far this strategy can be pursued. Obama is going to be president for four more years, after all, and Republicans will sometimes be duty-bound to work with him and more often to criticize his actions.

At the same time, they should keep in mind that it’s more important to build a post-Obama future for conservatism. That future will probably be led by a governor who has played little part in any of Washington’s battles between Republicans and Obama.