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A 'New Direction' vs. A Big Question Mark

05/25/2011 11:55 am ET

For about a year, the partisan the debate has been the same -- Democrats criticize Republicans for their litany of failures; Republicans respond by insisting Democrats can't offer an alternative. With the rollout of the Democrats' "New Direction" agenda last week, the minority party hoped not only to demonstrate to voters what they could expect from a Democratic Congress, but also to undermine one of the GOP's favorite talking points.

The "New Direction" platform hits all the high points -- minimum wage increase, stem-cell research, a repeal of subsidies for oil and gas companies -- but the agenda seems geared specifically to respond to the argument, "I don't know what we'd get if Democrats win back the majority." That's fine, but I would recommend that Democrats add a question to their laundry list of policy-proposal specifics.

While telling the electorate what Democrats would offer, the party might also consider turning the GOP's question on its head -- why not ask what congressional Republicans would do in 2007 and 2008 if they keep the majority?

The current GOP approach to the elections is to scare the hell out of voters. If Democrats win a majority, they'll raise your taxes! They'll force you to marry some gay person! You'll be required by law to hire undocumented immigrants in your own home! Simultaneously, the Republicans argue that Democrats are basically just an obstructionist party that stands in the way of conservative goals.

The irony is, if you listen to Republicans' rhetoric from recent months, their raison d'etre for the 2006 elections is to stand in the way of a progressive agenda. The GOP wants to stop Democrats from holding Bush accountable, from raising the minimum wage, from combating global warming. Republicans want to keep power, not to enact their legislative priorities, but to stop their rivals from enacting theirs. The party that complains bitterly about "obstructionism," it turns out, is actually projecting.

Put it this way: name five pieces of legislation or major policy initiatives we can expect to see next year from a Republican Congress, if the party manages to keep its majorities. Sure, there's legislation they might want but are afraid to ask for (privatizing Social Security), there are issues they care about but are bitterly divided on (immigration), and there are wish-list items their base demands but they can't actually pass (an anti-gay constitutional amendment), but in the end, the party that likes to bill itself as the "party of ideas" couldn't fill a Contract with America this year. Indeed, it won't even try.

In some ways, the Republican demands that Democrats unveil a legislative agenda before the elections was always a bit of a trap. The GOP had no interest in debating their legislative record, and even less interest in presenting new ideas for the future, so they baited their rivals into giving them a target to attack for the rest of the year.

Now that they've unveiled their ideas for a "new direction," Democrats should stand proudly behind its agenda -- it's a solid list that should generate strong public support -- but almost as importantly, they should challenge the GOP to follow suit. Democrats have laid their cards on the table. Republicans are responding with predictable condemnation, but no one, not even GOP lawmakers themselves, seem to have any idea what the nation can expect from another two years of a Republican Congress. At a minimum, it's worth asking the party why.

Right now, the GOP looks like a party with no achievements from the last two years, and no agenda for the next two. So how about it, Republicans? If you manage to keep your majority, what do you plan to do with all that power?

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