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Republicans should run a policy-free 2022 campaign that highlights Biden blunders and conservatives’ social grievances: top GOP strategist

"There is no reason to expect they'll do big conservative policy," said a former top aide to GOP House speakers John Boehner and Paul Ryan. ...

House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wis., center, walks with his chief communications adviser Brendan Buck, left, on the way to meet with reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Feb. 4, 2016.
House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, center, walks with his chief communications adviser Brendan Buck, left, on the way to meet with reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Feb. 4, 2016.

  • Republicans are poised to take back the House in 2022. 
  • They haven't made big, conservative policy promises. 
  • But a former top GOP aide says that may be key to securing victory.

Republicans aren't making any major promises or releasing a bold conservative agenda heading into the 2022 midterm elections — but that may be their "glidepath" to victory, said a longtime Capitol Hill veteran who worked under two GOP House speakers. 

"That is probably the right move. I don't think you need to present yourself as the focus in this election," said Brendan Buck, who worked as a top aide under GOP House speakers John Boehner of Ohio and Paul Ryan of Wisconsin. 

Buck, who is now a partner at the strategic communications firm Seven Letter, said Republicans should keep focusing on angst and dissatisfaction voters have on issues ranging from inflation to issues related to the seemingly never-ending COVID-19 pandemic. 

On top of that, Buck said, the GOP electorate had changed to focus more on culture wars and "fighting woke-ism" rather than on whether their elected leaders would deliver policy victories. 

"I don't know that Republican voters care too much about policy as much as they used to," he said. "It's much more of a cultural fight that they're waging and that is really what motivates people." 

Republicans are poised to take back the House in 2022, and maybe even the Senate. Their hopes were bolstered this past week when a new Quinnipiac University poll showed President Joe Biden's approval ratings cratered to 33%.

Historically, members of the opposing party tend to do well at the ballot when a president is unpopular. And the math is also easier for Republicans this election cycle because they only have to win five seats to take the House majority. Twenty-six House Democrats have already announced they're retiring, a sign that typically signals a party expects to lose control of their chamber. 

While Democrats are stumping on numerous policy positions from improving voting access to extending the child tax credit, and combating the climate crisis to enacting paid sick and family leave, Republicans have focused on attacking Biden on everything from a COVID testing shortage to the US hitting the highest inflation it has in 40 years. 

What they haven't done is release a plan for how they'd tackle it all differently if they were in charge.

"There isn't a groundswell of opposition for Biden or groundswell of support for Republicans," Buck said. "But the bar is so low and the environment so bad that that will do the trick."  

Part of the problem with making big promises on policy is expectation setting: If Republicans control the House — or even the Senate, too — they still won't be able to accomplish much legislatively with a Democrat in the White House.

The party also may be trying to avoid the same trap it fell into over several election cycles, when members promised to repeal the Affordable Care Act, President Barack Obama's signature healthcare law, and then failed when they held a majority in Congress and with Donald Trump in the White House. 

Absent working on rare bipartisan issues, a Republican majority in the House would be left with power to act as a check against the White House. Some House Republican leaders already have told Insider they're eager to launch investigations into the Biden administration and into some of the business dealings of the president's son, Hunter Biden. 

It's the same pitch to voters that Democrats made when they ran successful campaigns under Trump in 2018, though at the time they also leaned heavily on protecting and expanding the Affordable Care Act. 

If Republicans win the majority, Buck said, "there is no reason to expect they'll do big conservative policy." 

President Joe Biden delivers a speech on infrastructure while visiting the NH 175 bridge spanning the Pemigewasset River on November 16, 2021 in Woodstock, New Hampshire
President Joe Biden.

Democrats, in contrast, are running on policy promises

A Republican-controlled House seems likely, but isn't guaranteed. Buck said Democrats' electoral prospects could improve if inflation dissipates and the coronavirus pandemic comes to a halt. 

"I don't want to say it's hopeless for Democrats," Buck said, "but they have to hope some things turn around and some of these things they don't have full control of themselves."

Buck also said a GOP-controlled House might help Biden "get his mojo back" if he were to embrace the role of an "independent moderate healer." 

"When you no longer have Congress," he said, "you no longer have these demands to pass a far-left sweeping agenda that I think is not a good fit for him." 

Democrats' focus on sweeping progressive priorities will hurt them at the ballot box, Buck predicted.  

Voters elected Biden to govern with competence and establish, in the aftermath of the ever-erratic Trump administration, that "the chaos is coming to an end," Buck said.

Biden's mandate didn't include him enacting sweeping, generational change, Buck said, echoing a dispute that has paralyzed progress between centrist and progressive Democrats in Congress. 

"They just wanted the end of the stress of the Trump era," Buck said of voters' support for Biden. "They wanted COVID to recede into the background and they wanted the economy to chug along." 

Yet nearly a year after taking office, the COVID pandemic is still raging, inflation is high, and Biden's climate and social safety net bill is on life support. 

"That all flows up to the issue of competence and the issue of normalcy," Buck said. "Biden was elected with the spirit of allowing people to get back to feeling comfortable" and show the "chaos was coming to an end." 

"People," he added, "don't feel that way." 

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