Government & Politics

Dave Helling: GOP must change its tune to something less negative

President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address at times had Vice President Joe Biden on his feet and House Speaker John Boehner in his seat.
President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address at times had Vice President Joe Biden on his feet and House Speaker John Boehner in his seat. The Associated Press

President Barack Obama brings his 2015 Victory Tour to Lawrence on Thursday morning. We’re not sure what we’ll hear. Maybe some of his greatest hits mixed with lots of material from the new album.

We’re also likely to get a wisecrack or two. Obama can be funny in a dry way, like when he busted congressional Republicans during the State of the Union speech — pointing out that the nation’s voters had chosen him not just once but twice.

The ad-libbed line was great theater but poor politics. Obama spent 10 minutes pleading with Republicans to cooperate and compromise on new legislation, then stepped on his own message with a unplanned quip. The joke reframed all that had come before, a sour note in an otherwise coherent tune.

Of course, Republicans predictably frowned. For six years they’ve played Herbert Hoover to Obama’s Teddy Roosevelt — scolding, humorless, judgmental. Really, when’s the last time any national Republican said anything that made you laugh, or surprised you?

Party leaders have a chance to change that approach in the new Congress. When pundits say the GOP majority must now “govern,” what they’re really saying is the party’s dour “no” is growing tiresome for a broad swath of voters, particularly the young, putting the party’s 2016 presidential prospects in jeopardy.

Obama understands this, perhaps more than any other Democrat. There’s a good argument that making community college tuition-free is too expensive — about $6 billion a year over 10 years — but which side is more politically attractive to young voters: the side that says yes to free college or the side that just says no without offering an alternative?

Republicans oppose Obama’s call for federally mandated paid sick leave: higher costs, fewer jobs, all that. OK, but must they always be on the boss’ side?

Some Republicans are offering a yes: the Keystone XL oil pipeline. Merits aside, it seems unlikely the project will electrify most voters one way or another, not when gas is $2 a gallon.

Ronald Reagan and Newt Gingrich knew voters want some understanding of how their lives will change under new governance. For all his problems, Gov. Sam Brownback has offered an aggressive, affirmative agenda for voters to judge.

Obama also knows those lyrics by heart, which is why he won two national elections.

Republicans seem to prefer the Human Beinz’ immortal hit “Nobody But Me,” which uses the word “no” more than 60 times in about two minutes.

To reach Dave Helling, call 816-234-4656 or send email to dhelling@kcstar.com.

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