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Byron York: Battered GOP tries to find strength in weakness

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The purpose of the House Republican retreat, now going on in Williamsburg, Va., is to help GOP lawmakers come to terms with just how weak they are. Even though the party controls the House, the talk in some quarters at Williamsburg is of adopting a "minority mentality" to oppose President Obama's initiatives the way Republicans did when they were in an even weaker position in 2009. By doing so, the thinking goes, the GOP might be able to rebuild itself after last November's devastating losses.

The problem is, if Republicans are asked what they can reasonably expect to accomplish in the next six months, after a variety of fights with the president, they don't have an answer. What would constitute an achievable victory? They don't really know.

So they're looking back. As GOP strategists see it, the party scored victories on several issues in the early days of the Obama administration even when it didn't win actual votes. On the stimulus, for example, Republicans lost the vote but still convinced a majority of Americans that the giant Democratic spending plan did not work. The same was true for cap and trade, which failed in part because Republicans won the debate over the damage such a program would do to the already-ailing economy. In the biggest fight, over Obamacare, the GOP lost but still convinced a majority of Americans that the Democratic scheme was bad for both their health care and the economy.

But in the last election, as some of the Republicans meeting in Williamsburg see it, the decision to run a referendum campaign -- choosing, as one strategist put it, "to say we don't need a product, because Obama is so bad that we'll win" -- left the GOP without solid issues as the president enters his second term. As a result, Republican strategists now realize that many voters see the GOP as opposing Obama simply for the sake of opposing Obama, rather than standing on any firm principle.

Of course, Republicans are in better shape than the were in '09; they control one house of Congress and can stop the president's worst initiatives. But they don't have much of an agenda. And that has hurt them as they have tried to develop a strategy for the next few months.

Even though much of the media is obsessed with the coming fight over the debt ceiling, GOP leaders are urging lawmakers to see that battle as just one quarter of a larger game. They've already lost the first quarter, the "fiscal cliff" battle that resulted in many Republicans agreeing to an increase in income tax rates for the nation's highest earners. The debt limit showdown will be the second quarter, with the third and fourth quarters being fights over sequestration cuts and a continuing resolution to fund the government.

As several influential Republicans see it, the goal is not to focus exclusively on any one quarter but to end up in a better place than where they started. The problem is, they can't really say what that better place might be.

Certainly they want to achieve some sort of spending cuts, but so far the party has been unable, or unwilling, to unite behind any plan. On Tuesday, Rep. Steve King of Iowa, a leading conservative, appeared on Fox News to declare, "We must have cuts to go along with any debt ceiling increase. They must be substantial." But when anchor Martha MacCallum asked King to name some cuts, he demurred. When MacCallum pressed, King responded, "I take your point that we need to sell it with specifics. But you also understand that as soon as a specific is put out there, it is attacked by the spending piranhas on the other side."

"We're trying to be like Richard Nixon," says one Republican involved in the Williamsburg retreat. "We've got a secret plan to win the war, but we can't tell you what it is."

The problem, though, is that they don't really have a plan, secret or not.

As far as big cuts are concerned, one reality emerging in Williamsburg is that Republicans will not present Obama with a comprehensive proposal to cut entitlement spending. Beyond the old Ryan road map, there is little far-reaching thinking going on about what should be done on entitlements. So look for Republicans to latch onto a few smaller proposals that Obama has spoken favorably of in the past and push the president to live by his own words.

The bottom line: For a party that just a few months ago hoped for big, big victories, Williamsburg is an exercise in painful reality.

Byron York, The Examiner's chief political correspondent, can be contacted at byork@washingtonexaminer.com. His column appears on Tuesday and Friday, and his stories and blogposts appear on washingtonexaminer.com.

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Byron York

Chief Political Correspondent
The Washington Examiner