Over the past year, the Democrats fixed on what they thought was a devastating four-word slogan to defeat Republicans in 2010: "The Party of No." Unlike many campaign slogans, it was fair enough. After all, the Republicans had opposed almost unanimously all of President Obama's major bills (socialized health care, stimulus, nationalization of GM and Chrysler, "cap and trade," financial overregulation, multitrillion-dollar yearly deficits, tax increases, etc.)
But the Democrats seem to have stopped using that phrase in the past several weeks as, apparently, White House strategists have come to appreciate that the only people screaming "no" louder than the Grand Old Party are the American people. (The president is now opposed by more than 60 percent of independents, 60 percent of whites, almost 40 percent of Hispanics and a full 19 percent of registered Democrats -- all historic worst numbers for the president.)
Instead, for the past few weeks, the president has been publicly testing a new message: Remember, you would not only be voting against Democrats in November, you would be voting for Republicans.
In other words, the public seems to have made the Democrats the issue in this election, and the Democrats would like the election to be a vote on the Republicans. This is a plausible strategy. If Mr. Obama can persuade the public to vote up or down on the Republican Party, it probably would be down. But of course, in midterm elections, the public usually (and seemingly overwhelmingly in 2010) plans to vote up or down (in this case, down) on the president's party -- not the opposition party.
Nonetheless, there is an overwrought debate on whether the GOP should simply ride the public's negative passion or present a positive agenda to the public to support the election of Republicans. My suspicion is that the wave of hostility to Mr. Obama's policies is so powerful that Republicans probably can win without going positive in many specific ways.
The technical arguments against a positive agenda are: (1) Midterm elections -- and particularly this one -- are overwhelmingly an up-or-down vote on the governing party, so focus your message where the voters' minds are; and (2) there is only so much time and opportunity to communicate with the voters. It is a mistake to waste those precious campaign assets on issues that divide the electorate.
The technical arguments in favor of devoting considerable campaign assets to a positive message are: (1) A party or candidate ought to stand for something; (2) the country has big problems, and a campaign is the chance to gain a mandate for policy; and (3) a positive agenda is very useful as a basis for actually organizing your government's legislative agenda when you are in power.
While the first, negative argument probably wins on a narrow assessment of the party's goals, I believe a carefully crafted discussion of where America stands in this fateful election year -- including both a strong, positive message and response to the current urge of the people -- is the most useful strategy for Republicans.
Of course, the GOP -- along with at least 60 percent of the country -- is powerfully negative on the enacted Obama agenda. We must commit to repeal. Millions of tea party voters (and others) worry that it will be business as usual if the Republican Party is back in charge. The public wants repeal, the country needs repeal, and Republicans must commit to it. Even if we do not have the votes to override a presidential veto, we must take the vote and make the case to the public. And, by the way, if the Democrats take the kind of beating that Democratic professionals such as James Carville and others anticipate, don't be surprised to see surviving Democratic senators and congressmen become "me-too Democrats" and vote with the Republicans to save their own skins. If not, we take names and run hard against them in 2012.
Also, the GOP must make a firm commitment to economic growth and prosperity, which will require a balanced budget without tax increases. Serious spending cuts must appear in the first year of the first budget the Republican Congress crafts. Finally, as community leaders as well as legislators, Republicans must provide leadership in a voluntary, private-sector explosion of "republican virtues" -- that is to say, the qualities of citizenship that make free self-governance possible. We need not only to limit entitlements but limit the need for them by encouraging self-sufficiency in the public.
The debauchery of Regency England (1790-1820s) was consciously replaced with Victorian values honoring work, self-reliance, living within one's income, cleanliness and social responsibility through good works and charity -- and thereby gave Britain an extra 100 years of world dominance.
Today in America, in appalled response to the excesses of Mr. Obama's statist policies, much of the public is ready to reconsider many of the excesses of the past several decades. We have a chance to help lead a voluntary cultural reinvigoration similar to Britain's, in keeping with 21st-century American application of the timeless civic virtues that made America both materially and morally worthy of worldwide admiration. Time to be great again.
Tea party and Republican families in thousands of chapters could hold local essay contests for children on the responsibilities of citizenship. It would be a first step around the teacher unions' stranglehold on teaching moral lessons. In more and more ways, we must lead a voluntary reassertion of American values.
On the legislative front, for example, we should systematically purge the codes where possible and pass laws to expedite free enterprise that encourages micro-entrepreneurship. New businesses with just a few employees should have almost all paperwork requirements waived as well as the first three to five years of taxes. We want to encourage an explosion in such creative economic activity from the inner city to the suburbs. We need to systematically strip the codes, where possible, of any legal barriers to citizen self-sufficiency.
By balancing a stern demand for constitutional, limited government with a strong, positive, active commitment to voluntary betterment, the Republican Party can stand confidently to ask for the privilege of leading America back to our greatness and our goodness.