Midterm-election results can seriously mislead a party about the extent of its mandate. About 44.8 million people cast a Republican ballot in the House elections of 2010, while 69.5 million voted for Barack Obama two years before. When it comes time to go toe-to-toe with the president, that legitimacy differential should be kept in mind.
2) Don’t overdo scandal politics. Congress has a duty to oversee the executive branch. Republicans understandably want answers on many issues from the Obama administration, especially on issues—from Ebola to ISIS—where previous White House statements have been, ahem, overtaken by events. Congressional Republicans should keep in mind, however, that only in the rarest cases do Washington commotions connect to anything that matters much to anyone other than the most intensely partisan voters. That’s not to say that these investigations don’t matter. Often they do, as crucial elements of the self-correction of the political system. It’s just that they don’t matter anywhere near as much as the fundamentals: national security, economic management, personal opportunity. If the party holding Congress finds itself demanding, “Where’s the outrage?,” odds are that the outrage will be found among those citizens who wonder why that party is ignoring their concerns to pursue its own.
3) Don’t cater to donors. The very rich are different from you and me, and so are Republican donors. Republican donors want upper-income tax cuts, immigration amnesty, higher interest rates, big cuts in social-insurance programs, and an array of other measures that diverge widely from the preferences of the typical voter. On some issues, Republican donors may have good arguments behind them; on others, less so. The rub is this: A president can join many different issues into a broad program, supported by a truly national message. George W. Bush, for example, could send tax cuts and education reform to Congress together, under the shared rubric of enhancing opportunity for all Americans.
Congress, however, is much more susceptible to pressure from small but cohesive interest groups. Unless party leaders strongly determine to go slow on meeting donor demand, they may discover individual members acting in ways that brand the whole party as a tool of special interests and the wealthy. Nearly 50 percent of House members and 30 percent of Senators belong to the caucus that speaks for private aircraft owners. That caucus has a long list of demands it is itching to act on, including lowering user fees to shift more of the costs of flying onto the general public. Don’t listen.
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On the other hand, here are three things that a Republican majority in Congress should do:
4) Act in specific, visible ways to detoxify the party’s image. The proposal by many GOP Senate candidates to redesignate the birth-control pill as an over-the-counter medication as a way of reaching women is a brilliant example of the technique. Yet there’s more to do. Endorsing measures to restrict the availability of firearms to persons under restraining orders or who have been found guilty of misdemeanor domestic violence would also send a strong message that Republicans hear and understand women’s concerns. Republicans need to attend and honor holidays and ceremonies of growing ethnocultural communities. Support for shorter prison sentences, more humane conditions in prison, diversion rather than incarceration for drug offenders, and demilitarization of local police officers—all command growing support within the Republican Party, and all would change the party’s image where it most needs changing.