For more than three years, congressional Republicans have been eager, if not desperate, to push a simple message: the economy stinks and the public should blame President Obama.
With the economy improving, however, some GOP lawmakers suddenly have a very different idea in mind for an election-year message.
In a break with party leaders, some House Republicans want the GOP to take credit for the improvement in the economy that has occurred under their majority.It's an economic argument that Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has thus far rejected, despite the fact that the unemployment rate has fallen by nearly a full percentage point in the nearly 15 months since Republicans took control of the House."I don't know why they don't make it, but I believe it's the truth," said freshman Rep. Jeff Landry (R-La.). "I believe that if anybody's going to get a pat on the back for [lower] unemployment and the better economy, it's House Republicans, and not the president and not the Senate."
Landry's argument, giving House Republicans credit for the recent economic improvements, has apparently been endorsed by Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho) and GOP economist Douglas Holtz-Eakin, among others.
As a substantive matter, this pitch is rather silly, if not ridiculous. House Republicans haven't passed any major economic legislation, so there's nothing to take credit for, exactly. Indeed, throughout 2011, if one asked GOP officials why the economy was so weak, they'd point to taxes, "Obamacare," and regulations. But in 2012, tax rates remain the same; the Affordable Care Act remains in place; and the identical regulations are being enforced in identical ways. By Republican reasoning, the strengthening recovery should be literally impossible.
But even if we look beyond the substantive policy question, it appears congressional Republicans are approaching a fork in the road: do they embrace "the '96 strategy" or not?
Party officials appear divided on the question and there's no clear answer as to what they will, or even should, do.
The '96 strategy is pretty straightforward: in 1996, the congressional Republican majority decided it was more important to keep their majority than to fight an uphill battle to win the White House. George Will recently recommended the GOP pursue a similar, if not identical, tack in 2012 -- Barack Obama is likely to win a second term, he argued, so Republicans should focus on power on Capitol Hill.
If Republicans decide to shift their economic message -- from assigning blame for a bad economy to taking credit for an improving one -- it would be an explicit endorsement of the '96 strategy, effectively telling the GOP presidential ticket, "Good luck; you're on your own."
And why not? The prospects for Republicans winning the Senate are mixed, at best, and there's a chance Democrats can take back the House in November. If GOP lawmakers returned home and said, "Look at how much better the economy is now than it was a couple of years ago," Mitt Romney would be in a very difficult spot, but Republicans would probably improve their own re-election odds.
Indeed, there are already hints of a bizarre 2012 debate over who can credibly claim responsibility for the recent economic upswing: Democrats credit Obama; Romney credits Bush; and congressional Republicans want to credit themselves.
But if the national conversation accepts an economic recovery as a given, the only folks who'll struggle are those on the GOP ticket.