Congressional party retreats are designed to pour oil on troubled waters and unite powerful egos and diverse perspectives around a consensus course of action. They generally accomplish that purpose, at least for a while.
So you have to wonder about last week’s House Republican retreat, which produced more confusion and division than was contained in its baggage from Washington to Cambridge, Maryland. Its much-heralded and heavily telegraped “principles on immigration,” written in codes and near-hieroglyphs, has created the largest and loudest row among Republicans on the subject since Marco Rubio helped Democrats build a super-majority for comprehensive reform in the Senate. The steely focus of Republicans on Obamacare is now being blurred by wrangling over alternatives. And the House GOP conference’s strategic decision on how to deal with an imminent debt limit measure has bogged down into arguments over what empty gesture to offer before surrender.
Immediately after the retreat ended, House Republican Leader Eric Cantor went on Face the Nation, and pressed mildly by Major Garrett on these obvious subjects, collapsed into incoherence. The primary problem for House immigration policy, it seems, is the belief that Barack Obama will not enforce any laws, an obstacle that will not be removed until 2017, which makes one wonder why the conference is bothering with articulating “principles.”
Days after the introduction of a spanking new Senate Republican health care proposal (to high hosannas from conservative think tankers) that includes a partial repeal of tax subsidies for employer-based coverage and sizable means-tested subsidies for insurance purchases, Cantor could only mumble the usual tired litany about interstate insurance sales and high-risk pools. Most pathetically, in the face of the united Democratic refusal to negotiate on the debt limit (which ought to be familiar to Republicans since they encountered and succumbed to it just last October), the wily Leader piously hoped for Democratic spending concessions before admitting there would be no debt default, no matter what.
Aside from the topics he covered on Face the Nation, Cantor reportedly spent time at the retreat trying to tutor his troops on the need for a message that would appeal to people who don’t own businesses. That this was necessary is bad enough, but according to conservative journalist Byron York of the Washington Examiner, it met resistance:
“It’s something that’s been growing and taking time for members to get comfortable with,” says a House GOP aide, “because they did spend the last decade talking about small business owners.”
The sense that House leaders were struggling in Cambridge is reinforced by their lack of an aggressive media strategy aimed at the bored congressional reports hanging out nearby waiting for something—anything—to write about, as TIME’s Alex Rogers reported:
Complaints of access were rampant among journalists at the two-day conference on Thursday and Friday. Of four news conferences scheduled, two—helpfully titled ”An America That Works for Women” and ”An America That Works to Protect Taxpayers” were cancelled, including the only one slated for Friday.
Inside the retreat, the briefings don’t sound like they exactly set the conference on fire, according to Chris Moody’s account for Yahoo:
Republicans began their retreat on Wednesday with talks from conservative journalists, followed by a briefing with pollsters and strategists about the state of the electoral map in 2014. That afternoon, they sat through TED talk-style motivational speeches “to provide a little creativity to our members,” said House Conference Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers. One speech, titled “Robots for Humanity,” was about how drones and robots can assist people in everyday life.
After breakout sessions that covered ethics rules, communication strategies and tips on using Twitter and Facebook more effectively, the conference got a pep talk during dinner from College Football Hall of Fame coach Lou Holtz.
Moody also reports House Republicans got a briefing from Frank Luntz on how to connect with “hard-working Americans. “ That would be the same Frank Luntz who was recently profiled by The Atlantic’s Molly Ball as having lost faith both in those “hard-working Americans” and in the pols he was instructing in Cambridge:
Luntz dreams of drafting some of the rich CEOs he is friends with to come up with a plan for saving America from its elected officials. “The politicians have failed; now it’s up to the business community to stand up and be heard,” he tells me. “I want the business community to step up.” Having once thought elites needed to listen to regular people, he now wants the people to learn from their moneyed betters.
All in all, it sounds like the House GOP retreat was led by people who are themselves in retreat, or perhaps just going in circles.
Ed Kilgore is the principal blogger for Washington Monthly’s Political Animal blog, Managing Editor of The Democratic Strategist, and a Senior Fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Earlier he worked for three governors and a U.S. Senator. He can be followed on Twitter at@ed_kilgore.