The fractious GOP hierarchy seems to have finally settled on a message when it comes to President Barack Obama: take a deep breath and don't take the bait.
Overtly in speeches and more subtly with their actions, GOP leaders and potential 2016 presidential candidates are sending a message to their party that it ought not let itself be radicalized by Obama's ambitious and decidedly left-leaning second-term agenda.
Yes, high profile Republicans are urging stout resistance to such Obama proposals as gun control and climate change legislation and there's little in the way of calls for moderation.
But in their next breath, following condemnation of the president's liberalism, the would-be GOP standard-bearers are imploring conservatives to not just oppose Obama but devise an agenda of their own that they can present to voters.
These Republicans, it seems, are dreading a replay of the past four years in which a triumphant Obama win leads to a conservative backlash at the polls in 2014 but the party is then tranquilized into believing it can win gold in the next presidential cycle by doing nothing but loudly opposing the administration.
Instead, top GOP officials are calling for a more strategic mix of opposition and accommodation, though of course they wouldn't dare call it that. Broadly put, it looks something like this: fight Obama on some issues but don't give him easy public relations wins by getting bogged down in fiscal fights and obstructing proposals like immigration reform. And, oh yes, offer an agenda of your own.
Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan has been the most explicit about this new tack and gave it a name, or perhaps a euphemism, in a speech in Washington on Saturday at a conference staged by the National Review Institute: "prudence."
"He'll try to divide us with phony emergencies and bogus deals," Ryan warned of Obama. "He'll try to get us to fight with each other -- to question each other's motives--so we don't challenge him. If we play into his hands, we will betray the voters who supported us -- and the country we mean to serve. We can't let that happen. We have to be smart. We have to show prudence."
In a political context, prudence is most associated with Dana Carvey's wicked impression of the slightly awkward but ever temperate George H.W. Bush -- "not gonna do it, wouldn't be prudent." In other words, a plate of cooked broccoli in today's red meat Republican Party.
But to Ryan and other leading Republicans, there now seems to be considerable virtue in prudence, if not moderation.
"We won't play the villain in his morality plays," said Ryan, the House Budget Committee chairman and last year's vice presidential nominee in his Saturday address. "We have to stay united. We have to show that -- if given the chance -- we can govern. We have better ideas."
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker echoed his fellow Cheesehead about how the GOP should respond to Obama's agenda.
"The biggest impetus for Republicans here is that we've got to offer a big, bold, positive, optimistic alternative to the president's agenda," Walker said in an interview following his own speech at the National Review Institute conference. "Just being 'no,' just being a stopgap isn't enough. People have got to see that there's an alternative and that alternative is relevant to their lives. "
Walker, who also may consider a White House bid, made clear who his advice was directed toward.
"Having leaders [in Washington] who just object to everything, it becomes almost a knee-jerk reaction," he said. "Where people go, 'Oh, there they go again,' versus 'We'll work with you on some things, but where you're fundamentally wrong, that's where we're going to stand up and object.' I think that's much more powerful."
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, another potential 2016 candidate, has also warned against blind opposition toward Obama and, since last year's election, been an outspoken voice for message reform within the GOP.
"If this election taught us anything it is that we will not win elections by simply pointing out the failures of the other side," Jindal said Sunday at the National Review event. "We must boldly paint a picture of what America can be."
The Louisianan has been particularly critical of the congressional GOP's obsession with short-term fiscal fights and the jargon thereof.
"We seem to have an obsession with government bookkeeping," Jindal lamented Sunday, reprising remarks he offered at a Republican National Committee meeting last week in Charlotte.
Jindal, like most ambitious Republicans, has kept much of his criticism focused more on presentation than on substance.
But Ryan ventured into policy over the weekend in what amounted to a mini-rollout from somebody who has largely kept quiet since the election. He defended his support of the fiscal cliff compromise -- opposed by a majority of House Republicans -- by stating bluntly that the economy would have taken a "nosedive" if it hadn't passed. And he laid out the two-pronged approach he believes the party should take: "to mitigate bad policy -- and to advance good policy wherever we can."
What he didn't say in front of the conservative crowd, but did the following day, was that one of those policies he'd like to advance is immigration reform.
Of all the issues Obama laid out in his inaugural address, immigration is the topic on which the most common ground with Republicans. Many in the congressional GOP, gripped with fear about their declining share of support from the country's fastest-growing population, are anxious to support any sort of immigration legislation and deprive Democrats of the issue for future elections.
To get a sense for Republicans' appetite for being a more cautious opposition, look no further than Florida Sen. Marco Rubio's embrace of immigration reform and the response to his proposal. It was an issue that Rubio, elected thanks to conservatives, handled gingerly in his first two years in the capital. But with the GOP's crushing defeat among Hispanics in November and Rubio eyeing a bolstered resume heading into 2016, the Cuban-American phenom has let go of his reservations and sought to become the Republican face of immigration reform.
So far, he's suffered little intraparty blowback.
Just the opposite: Among conservative voices in the media, there's been a remarkable shift since Election Day on immigration, with even the most hard-line talk show hosts giving Rubio room to make his naturalization-with-conditions reform pitch.
Seemingly every day, there's a new ICYMI email from Rubio's forward-leaning staff touting warm comments about the Floridian's plan from a different right-winger (Saturday it was Lou Dobbs).
Rubio has gotten cover not just from the likes of Dobbs but also key members of Congress -- like Ryan.
"I support and agree with the principles that he laid out about earned legalization," the congressman said Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press.""Making sure that you're not rewarding people for having cut in line, but making sure that we can fix this problem."
Not every conservative star is counseling prudence in dealing with Obama. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), the freshman who thrashed his establishment opponent last year, used his speech at the conference Saturday to tout the upside of a temporary government shutdown. There would be "some political pain to be sure," Cruz acknowledged, but he argued it was the 1990s-era government shutdowns that led to subsequent balanced budgets. But even the tea party-backed Texan used much of his address to speak to the need for Republicans to become a party of "growth and opportunity" and embrace "the 47 percent."
Whether this post-2012 mood of reform and introspection lasts until the first mail piece is dropped in Iowa is an open question. Even after consecutive presidential losses, there will be a temptation among some White House hopefuls to appeal to the party base by seeing who can outdo the other in talking the toughest toward Obama and veering the hardest to the right. And gains in 2014, when the electorate is likely to more closely look like it did in 2010 than last November, will only make such moves more alluring.
"Obama made the stupid decision to go hard-left ideologically, which means he'll get very little done, but I worry that our people could see any victories in the midterms as a sign that we just need to hit the gas," said longtime GOP strategist Mike Murphy. "Too many in the primary electorate will just take the bait and dig in, too."
Some senior Republicans are hopeful that the sobering experience of eight years out of the White House and a field with no candidates like Mitt Romney, who was viewed warily by the right, will reduce the temptation for demagoguery.
"Part of the reason why you had that rush to the right was because the front-runner was somebody who had issues with persuading conservatives," said conservative leader Ralph Reed. "So he had to spend a lot of time demonstrating his conservative bona fides."
For now, though, fears about cringe-inducing moments at debates or jockeying for conservative advantage at over-covered straw polls are in the distant future.
"There would have been two obvious post-election reactions," said Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol, "Blind fury at the electorate, the world and President Obama -- the kamikaze. And the other would have been total demoralization where you cave on everything. Well, if you're a conservative like me, the good news is the reaction hasn't been either of those."
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