"We're going to give you the change you deserve" --
House Minority Leader John Boehner
That's not a threat; it's a promise -- from the Republican congressional leaders. Really. Led by perpetually tanned House leader John Boehner, Republicans have suddenly discovered that the country wants change -- and they have decided to offer it to us. Washington is broken and they promise to fix it. They rolled out a new slogan -- "the change you deserve" -- to be followed by a new "American Families Program." (The campaign ran into trouble from the start: an alert blog -- Bluestem Prairie -- revealed that the slogan is the registered advertisement for the anti-depressant Effexor XR -- which, come to think of it, might just be what Boehner needs these days).
Republicans for change; now that's a switch. Until last week, congressional Republicans have been systematically, resolutely, and consistently committed to obstruction, not change. It was a clear strategy. No minority ever gets blamed if nothing gets done. After Democrats took over the majority of both Houses in 2006, Republicans set out to obstruct everything they could. Then they would run against a do-nothing Congress, accusing the Democrats of breaking their promises. Sort of like knee-capping the postman and then complaining about the mail being late.
They went about this with Tom DeLay-like discipline. The Senate minority set a new record for filibusters before the first session was over. The president issued a record number of veto threats. House Republicans perfected procedural tricks that would put sand in the gears. As last as last week, they switched their votes on a resolution celebrating mothers on Mother's Day simply to obstruct business on the Senate.
They blocked the resolution to set a date to get the troops out of Iraq. They blocked extending health care to children. They blocked allowing Medicare to negotiate lower prices on prescription drugs. They blocked overturning subsidies to big oil and investing them in alternative energy.
But despite their success in gumming up the works, the strategy hasn't been working out too well for them. Congress has grown less popular, but increasing majorities think the solution is to throw out Republicans, not Democrats. 29 Republicans looked at the race and decided to retire. Republicans suffered stunning special election defeats in former House Speaker Dennis Hastert's seat in Illinois (to an anti-war candidate), and in a solidly Republican district in Louisiana (despite running ads painting the Democrat as an Obama clone). Newt Gingrich warned that they faced "real disaster" this fall unless they changed course. "We can't win solely by tying our opponents to Barack Obama and his liberal views," Boehner concluded, "We also have to prove Republicans are agents of change."
"Our brand is still under repair," Boehner noted in a presentation for his Republican colleagues. So he called out the marketing gurus. Over the next week, he promises to roll out a new agenda to go with the new slogan. With the open seats, Republican candidates not scarred by the past can run as agents of change. If John McCain, a 35-year veteran of the beltway, can market himself as a maverick for change, why not the House Republicans?
But Boehner's rollout is likely to run into craters a lot more perilous than the slogan pothole. Every Republican candidate for Congress will have to answer a few basic questions: Are you with Bush and McCain on sustaining the war in Iraq? Do you support Bush and McCain's economic policies -- the tax cuts, the corporate trade deals, the privatization of Social Security, the unraveling of employer based health care?
If you are not with Bush and McCain, why should Republicans support you? If you are with them, why would the eight in ten Americans looking for a fundamentally new direction vote for you?
But no one believes in the magic of marketing more than politicians, eager to re-package themselves like the new Coke. Forget consistency. Forget conservatism. Boehner and his colleagues aren't worried about learning from the failures of the past years. They are worried about survival. And a snappy slogan, a new bumper sticker, and a fresh jingle may be the best hope they have.
Robert L. Borosage is the president of the Institute for America's Future and co-director of its sister organization, the Campaign for America's Future.
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