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Cole Still in Charge at NRCC; GOP Agenda Emerging

The dust is still clearing after House Republicans' humiliating loss in a Mississippi special election, but for now it appears that Tom Cole (Okla.) is still standing and that the GOP caucus-members are already moving to try to remedy their broader message and agenda problems.

Cole, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, was seen as a potential culprit (or scapegoat, depending on your perspective), in the GOP's loss in Mississippi, as well as beatings in two other special elections this year (in Illinois and Louisiana). But despite grumbling yesterday over Cole's handling of those races, no movement materialized either among his fellow GOP leaders or the rank-and-file to oust him or his top aides -- also the targets of criticism -- from their jobs.

"The sense of the [leadership] was, we need to pull together as a team. Breaking up the team was not the answer," Rep. Eric Cantor (Va.), the GOP's chief deputy whip, said Wednesday.

This morning, House Republicans held an unusual second full-Conference meeting in as many days. But while Wednesday's session was marked by wailing and gnashing of teeth over the Mississippi loss, today's gathering was devoted to a roll-out of the party's new message effort.

"We're in a hole -- no doubt about it. But I don't believe in a no-win scenario," House Minority Leader John Boehner (Ohio) told the assembled Republicans, according to talking points provided to Capitol Briefing.

"Not everyone agrees we should have an agenda," Boehner continued. "Some believe we should keep the focus on the Democrats, and run on simply 'not being them.' I disagree. I also believe there has to be something behind the agenda and the message. Otherwise it's just words. That's why, candidly, this has taken so long."

Boehner then laid out an agenda in five "chunks," beginning with the "American Families Agenda" the party unveiled yesterday. Through the end of the summer, the GOP will also roll out specific campaigns on energy, the economy, security and health care.

To deploy that agenda, Boehner encouraged the use of "guerilla tactics on the floor" as well as "aggressive media outreach -- including 'new media' and blogs."

In conclusion, Boehner said, "Washington is broken. The American people know it. Let's show them we're dammed serious about fixing it."

Okay then... House Republicans have their marching orders. But will that alone right the ship? What Boehner did not say this morning is that the GOP is inexorably linked to President Bush, his unpopular war strategy and, fairly or not, a weak economy. Boehner didn't tell members to run away from Bush (though perhaps they should), nor did he tell them to run against their own leadership to establish their independence -- as the victorious Democratic candidates in Louisiana and Mississippi did.

As for drawing press attention to their actions between now and November, House Republicans face a steep climb. In the hierarchy of Washington media coverage, the House minority usually occupies the lowest rung. In an election year, the presidential campaign comes first. Then the White House (even though Bush is a lame duck). Then the House and Senate majority, who set and control the agenda. Then the Senate minority, who can at least use that chamber's rules to obstruct and muck up the works.

Only after all those players have been accounted for does the media typically turn its attention to the largely powerless House minority, and even then often only when that group faces scandal or infighting. (And that's why House Republicans are on lots of front pages this morning.)

So regardless of what they think of Cole or Boehner or any one individual's leadership or tactical acumen, House Republicans do seem to realize they've got a much broader problem to deal with. But will a five-part legislative program -- dictated from D.C. -- really do the trick for GOP incumbents and candidates in November? In the end, Republicans may find they do need to "break up the team" in order to save it.

By Ben Pershing  |  May 15, 2008; 3:15 PM ET
Categories:  2008 Campaign , Agenda , GOP Leaders , House  
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