The GOP's Unforced Errors

A string of recent decisions will anger the base without winning new friends.

Imagine you are a leader of a political party that is already favored to make gains in this year’s elections. The signature domestic policy achievement of the other party is a health care law that will cover fewer people than originally advertised while luring more Americans out of the workforce.

The labor force participation rate is already the lowest since 1978. The health care law is already unpopular. Even the Medicaid expansion, which some Republican governors are loath to turn down, isn’t going as well as expected. The one thing running ahead of the curve is the cost, now estimated at $1 trillion.

Your opponents in the 2014 midterms have been reduced to celebrating these perverse incentives as a solution to “job lock.” But being stuck in a particular job and being stuck without a job is not the same thing. Under one scenario, a worker stays in a job she doesn’t want to keep her insurance. In the other, she drops out of the labor force entirely, even declining jobs she does want, to stay insured.

So facing opponents with such a dismal record and weak arguments, what do you do? Well, if you are a leader of the Republican Party, you promote policies that will anger your base while winning over no one else.

Exhibit A is the recently enacted farm bill, which boasts a nearly $1 trillion—that is, Obamacare-sized—price tag. A Heritage Foundation blogger fumed, “A Soviet central planner would blush at what House Republicans just voted for.” Food stamps make up about 80 percent of the spending, with some corporate welfare for big sugar and other special interests thrown in.

A bit of compassionate conservatism designed to win plaudits from the other side? Not likely. The Howard Dean-founded Democracy for America denounced the legislation. “If the President were truly serious about confronting the growing crisis of income inequality, he'd veto this bill and push for Congress to cut corporate subsidies, not food stamps—but Progressives aren't holding our breath,” the group’s communications director said in a statement.

Shades of George W. Bush: big spending while being a “uniter, not a divider.” The only problem is that it is uniting both sides of the ideological spectrum against the GOP.

Next up is immigration reform. The bipartisan (but mostly Democratic) Gang of Eight bill was dead. But the House leadership has revived the issue, releasing a series of Republican immigration principles at their annual retreat.

The principles themselves are mostly innocuous, but the main action item is not: a path to legalization—but not citizenship—for most illegal immigrants in the United States. Since the ability to work here is a bigger draw for many illegal immigrants than citizenship, this can fairly be described as amnesty.

Every past immigration reform effort has foundered over the issue of what to do with the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants already here. Nobody with any actual political power favors mass deportations. But there is no evidence past legalization programs have reduced subsequent illegal immigration.

House Republicans have killed every mass legalization effort since 2006 and appeared poised to do so again. So why did their leaders decided to put the issue back on the table?

It’s not a compromise that’s likely to win over many Hispanic voters. If it becomes law, it will likely receive more Democratic than Republican votes. It will be signed by a Democratic president. Its main opponents will be Republicans. So why will the GOP get credit?

Second, Democrats are willing to go further than the Republicans and offer citizenship.

Democrats will be able to say to Hispanics: Republicans want your friends and relatives to be able to pick crops and clean houses, but not to become citizens or vote. Won’t that talking point have some merit?

These bizarre political machinations might be easier to justify if they were good policy. But failing to reform food stamps, shoveling money to business interests, and doing K Street’s bidding on immigration doesn’t exactly fit the bill.

Republicans will still have a good year. Political conditions, such as vulnerable red-state Democrats up for reelection to the Senate, and turnout will favor them. Obamacare and the president’s anemic job approval numbers will likely overwhelm these missteps.

But even recent Republican victories have been marred by missed opportunities, most prominently the failure to retake the Senate in 2010. Why set the party up for more misses?

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