During an episode titled "The Pitch," George Costanza famously described Seinfeld as "a show about nothing." And so it is now with the Republican Party. As the Washington Post related, in the run-up to the November midterms Republican leaders are fiercely debating what - if anything - to stand for. By all indications, the Party of No by this fall may well be the Party of Nothing.
For his part, House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH) wants to go the something route by mimicking the 1994 Contract with America with a new "Commitment to America" for the fall campaign. But to date, his efforts have hardly been a resounding success.
His first attempt at rebranding the Republican Party in 2008 produced "The Change You Deserve," which sadly was already the slogan for the anti-depressant, Effexor. His lieutenant Eric Cantor then rolled out - and quickly abandoned - the National Council for a New America. Its successor, a request for online input called "America Speaking Out" has produced more guffaws than ideas. Worse still, Boehner to much laughter this week followed up his wildly unpopular call for a repeal of the new health care reform law with the same line on Wall Street reform and a proposed moratorium on new regulations of any kind. And it's all complicated further by a Tea Party base which threatens to make Rand Paul and Sharron Angle the new faces of the GOP.
But by riding a wave of voter anger over the sluggish economy, Republicans nevertheless stand to make major gains in the House and Senate. Which is why, the Post asks:
But will Republicans actually want to run on those ideas -- or any ideas? Behind the scenes, many are being urged to ignore the leaders and do just the opposite: avoid issues at all costs. Some of the party's most influential political consultants are quietly counseling their clients to stay on the offensive for the November midterm elections and steer clear of taking stands on substance that might give Democratic opponents material for a counterattack.
Republican pollster Neil Newhouse agrees, insisting "The smart political approach would be to make the election about the Democrats."
"In terms of our individual campaigns, I don't think it does a great deal of good" to engage in a debate over the Republicans' own agenda.
For his part, New York GOP Congressman Peter King echoed that sentiment:
"I don't think we have to lay out a complete agenda, from top to bottom, because then we would have the national mainstream media jumping on every point trying to make that a campaign issue."
Like Jerry Seinfeld's response to George, "I think you may have something there," Senator Minority Leader Mitch McConnell also seems taken with the idea of his being the Party of Nothing:
"We're not going to tell you that if you vote Republican you're going to wake up in your dream home with a brand-new Corvette outside, ready to take you to the best job in the world," McConnell said. "You know why? Because government can't deliver that promise."
Opposing that conservative nihilism is the Contract with America's prime mover, Newt Gingrich. "Consultants, in my opinion, are stupid," Gingrich said, adding, "The least idea-oriented, most mindless campaign of simplistic slogans is a mindless idea." Under Gingrich's tutelage, the Tea Party in April unveiled its "Contract from America." Unsurprisingly, that fiscal suicide pact was merely a rehash of Gingrich's 1994 document and the 2008 Republican platform.
With Boehner's "Commitment to America" scheduled for a post-Labor Day launch, Republicans have about six weeks left to figure out whether they will stand for anything at all. But voters seemingly rewarding the GOP for its record-setting obstructionism and success in killing trust in government, those advocating that the Republicans be the Party of Nothing have a good chance of winning out. As Trent Lott put it before leaving the Senate:
"The strategy of being obstructionist can work or fail. So far it's working for us."
Or as George Costanza described it in 1992, "I think I can sum up the show for you with one word: NOTHING."
UPDATE: Pushed to lay out the GOP agenda by David Gregory on Meet the Press Sunday, GOP Senators Cornyn and Sessions did what came naturally - and played dumb.
(An earlier version of this piece also appears at Perrspectives.)