To win a battle of ideas, GOP must enter contest

Bruce Poliquin. BDN photo by Brian Feulner

Bruce Poliquin. BDN photo by Brian Feulner

Freshman Republican Congressman Bruce Poliquin has quickly learned the perils of public office in his new job, catching heat for two of his very first votes on the House floor. Ironically — or hypocritically — enough, those criticizing his votes did so based on the exact opposite justification, changing their concern to fit the particular issue.

The first was the very first vote of the new Congress, for Speaker of the House. Diehard conservatives attempted to mount a rebellion against incumbent Speaker John Boehner, who had just crafted the GOP’s largest House majority since the Truman administration. Poliquin stuck by Boehner — who’d come to Maine to campaign for him — rather than throw in with a doomed effort to oust him. This drew the ire of some conservatives, who accused Poliquin of putting party loyalty above principles.

Then, a little more than a week ago, Poliquin surprised many by being one of three House Republicans to vote against a total repeal of ObamaCare. This wasn’t because Poliquin, who’d campaigned heavily in the primary against the law, had suddenly changed his mind about the legislation. Instead, his concern was that simply repealing the bill without any alternative in place would cause enormous chaos for businesses and individuals that had spent years transitioning to the new system. This time, Poliquin’s conservative critics complained that he was not showing enough party loyalty.

The commonality between these two issues, however, was that Poliquin was unwilling to participate in political show votes. He ran for Congress to find solutions, not merely draw ideological lines in the sand. This is not only the best way to govern, it’s wise political strategy. In the health care reform debate, the biggest drawback that conservatives had was that, rather than proposing their own alternative, they mostly just opposed the Affordable Care Act. This made it easier for Democrats to circle the wagons and shove a partisan bill through Congress.

Republicans face a similar bind on immigration. There is a wing of the party that is adamantly opposed to any immigration reform and refuses to even engage in discussion on the issue. Change is badly needed, and unless the GOP begins to offer ideas of its own, that change is likely to come in the form of the blanket amnesty that conservatives so oppose.

Sen. Susan Collins recently waded into this debate in an attempt to forge a compromise on the issue. She floated a proposal — with firebrand Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas — to leave one of President Obama’s two executive orders on immigration in place. Her plan would preserve the 2012 order that established the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program while repealing the 2014 executive order that deferred deportations for adults.

Of course, the White House is unlikely to embrace this proposal, as they have repeatedly stated that President Obama opposes any attempt to repeal either executive order. Although Collins’ plan may not make it past this president’s desk, it does advance the discussion. It also involves the GOP more directly in the debate over immigration reform than simply shouting “No Amnesty” at every possible opportunity.

Republicans can win these debates, but they have to offer compelling alternatives, not just opposition. We have seen in other areas (most notably education) that conservative ideas can win broad bipartisan support. In any area, a small-government, free-market based approach can be successful, but it has to actually be presented as an option. Neither party should begin a policy debate based on opposition alone. That’s entering a battle of ideas unarmed, and the conservative movement — and the American people — deserve better from our leaders.

Jim Fossel

About Jim Fossel

Originally from Alna, Jim Fossel has volunteered with a number of campaigns over the years, including for Peter Mills for Governor in 2006. He previously worked for U.S. Senator Susan Collins and House Republican Leader Josh Tardy.