Splintered GOP can only produce weak response

McClatchy-TribuneJanuary 30, 2014 

Today we are exploring the State of the Union’s Loyal Opposition.

We are doing this because in these economically and internationally challenging times, we desperately need strong leadership at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue that is determined to prove that Washington really can work.

Tuesday night, after President Obama made it clear that he would do as much as he could with executive orders if our divided Congress continues to operate in self-gridlock, our attention naturally turned to the Republicans who run the House and wield minority power in the Senate.

Will they be setting a bold counter-agenda — and will they tell us what they intend to do to improve such things as Obama’s imperfect health-care program?

After all, we knew we couldn’t judge the State of the Union and hopes for improving it by the bold phrases and go-it-alone intentions of the president. To evaluate America’s ability to resolve its crises with solutions, we must evaluate the state of the leadership of the Republican Party as well.

And Tuesday night, the Republicans followed Obama’s address with multiple responses that only demonstrated that the state of their party’s leadership is uneven — and even unstately. And that is too bad, because we need a Republican Party that is as good as it once was — led firmly and thoughtfully in Washington by conservative thinkers including Bob Dole, Howard Baker, Jack Kemp, and, going back a bit further, Mel Laird, Jerry Ford, and dozens more.

The Republicans treated the nation to not just one response, but three of them. (And of course, they weren’t really responses, because they were written and in some cases recorded prior to the address to which they were purportedly responding.)

The Republicans had only one official response — Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, a family-values conservative from Washington state, who is little known nationally even though she chairs the House Republican Conference.

Rodgers speech was touching as she led us through her life’s story and especially evocative as she discussed at length the accomplishments of one of her children who has Down syndrome. Yet, when it came to America’s problems and crises, she inexplicably offered not a single solution, eschewing substance in favor of bromides and platitudes.

“Right now, the president’s policies are making people’s lives harder. Republicans have plans to close the gap,” Rodgers said; but inexplicably, she offered no elaboration. Republican strategists should be sent to the woodshed for allowing such a tepid script to be their party’s official word.

Meanwhile, Rodgers’ response was overshadowed by far more prominent Republicans, who insisted on delivering their own state of the union responses — an act of demi-rebellion in which they seemed to be telling their GOP leaders what they ought to do with the elephant they rode in on.

Sen. Mike Lee of Utah gave the so-called official tea party response; it was not carried on network television but on the Tea Party Express website. Lee, in turn, may have been overshadowed by the reigning tea party favorite, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, who gave his own response on his Senate website and on Facebook, and repeated his previously offered solutions, including creating so-called “Freedom Zones,” where companies could operate unfettered by government regulations and tax burdens.

And Paul may have also been overshadowed — for as I was watching his speech online, I looked up at my TV screen, and he was there too, being interviewed on CNN. When Wolf Blitzer asked Paul if he believed in a federal minimum wage law, the senator said only: “I’m not sure I have an answer.” Turning to Iran’s cutback on producing weapons grade uranium, amid negotiations to make sure Iran never develops a nuclear bomb, Paul blithely told CNN that unlike Obama, he wouldn’t have eased economic sanctions until Iran agreed to a comprehensive accord. And when Wolf Blitzer said Iran wouldn’t have made any of its interim changes if sanctions hadn’t been reduced, Paul looked surprised and simply said, “Maybe, I’m not sure ...”

Paul, a Republican favorite in the wayyyy-too-early presidential polls, works hard these days to not talk about the reality that on national security issues, he seems way to the left of the old Vietnam-era antiwar Democrats like George McGovern and Gene McCarthy. Indeed, Rand Paul seems to be living in a different galaxy than all the strong-on-national-security Republicans who once boldly led in Washington. But that was back in the days when the Grand Old Party was still grand, even when it wasn’t all that good.

Martin Schram, an op-ed columnist for McClatchy-Tribune, is a veteran Washington journalist, author and TV documentary executive. Email him at martin.schram@gmail.com.

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