June 9, 2015 at 5:00 am ET
Sen. Lindsey Graham declared last week that he’s running for president. While other announced (and un-announced) candidates clearly have a more viable path to becoming the Republican nominee than he does, the frontrunners could certainly learn from him. Graham has already offered the most important words yet of all the current Republican presidential hopefuls.
Earlier this spring, after delivering remarks about Iran at the Council on Foreign Relations, Graham was asked a question about climate change. He replied, “What is the environmental platform of the Republican Party? I don’t know, either.”
That’s quite a statement. Clean air, clean water, climate change, drought, food production, flooding and other natural disasters – all of these issues touch upon environmental matters.
Why doesn’t the Republican Party have a position on the environment? Wasn’t it Richard Nixon who created the Environmental Protection Agency, and Ronald Reagan who helped lead the way in closing the ozone hole? Wasn’t it George H.W. Bush who signed the law to cut the pollutants that cause acid rain? Haven’t Western ranchers and New England garden clubs long been a part of the GOP base? Isn’t the root word of “conservative”conserve?
The reason there is no easily identifiable Republican position on the environment is twofold. First, the oil and gas industries have become a core part of the party’s philosophical and financial success. Even more important, however, is the fact that since 2009, the GOP has defined itself almost exclusively by its opposition to whatever position President Obama holds. As such, climate change and environmental policy present only one example of the GOP’s platform of “just say no” politics.
This is a road to nowhere, and congressional Republicans aren’t doing their presidential hopefuls any favors. On any number of issues around which there should be bipartisan compromise (and where there has been compromise in the past), most congressional Republicans have made the calculation that shouting “no” at the President is good politics and sufficient policy. Fully fund critical national infrastructure projects? No. Pass meaningful tax reform? Probably not. Raise the debt ceiling? Default is treated as a reasonable option. Even trade, which has been a standard part of GOP economic policy in the past, is experiencing turbulence on Capitol Hill – and that’s despite Republican control of both chambers.
It has often been noted that Obamacare was built on the health care plan that Governor Romney fought for and won in Massachusetts. What’s not repeated enough is that the reason Governor Romney and many Republicans (such as Newt Gingrich) once supported this commonsense approach is because it uses competition and increases consumer choice to curb costs, while expanding access to care for Americans living without it.
Today, Republicans will say they want to repeal Obamacare – but they haven’t explained what could replace it. How can you ask people to support a “repeal and replace” policy if the second half of that slogan is meaningless?
In his remarks to the Council on Foreign Relations, Senator Graham also said this: “I think the Republican Party has to do some soul-searching. Before we can be bipartisan, we’ve got to figure out where we are as a party.”
Elected leaders in Washington will continue to struggle to find common ground until the GOP knows what it wants. The party needs to express more than reflexive opposition to the President. Once it does, it can fight like hell for its policy objectives, and make smart compromises when the bulk of those objectives are met. So while Senator Graham’s candidacy might be a long shot at best, the GOP presidential contenders would do well to remember that general election voters want solid policy positions on thorny questions. As campaigns get underway, the time for GOP soul-searching is now.
Jim Papa is an Executive Vice President at Global Strategy Group’s Washington, D.C. office, where he guides operations and strategy for its public affairs, communications, and competitive research practices. Previously, he served as Special Assistant to the President for Legislative Affairs.