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Senate Republicans Want the GOP to Make All Sorts of Promises It Can't Keep

Getty Images/Win McNamee

Senate Republicans may be about to make the same mistake they often do when attempting to outline a platform: proposing policies that are impossible to implement.

Politico reports that a bloc of Senate Republicans, led by Lindsey Graham, "is agitating for party leaders to unveil a policy manifesto" that would explain to voters what the GOP would do if it took the majority in the midterm elections. This is yet another sign that the Republican Party realizes it needs a new political strategy, now that Obamacare has rebounded. A new "Contract With America"—the party's midterm platform in 1994, on which this 2014 manifesto would be modeled—could prove successful at the polls.

But as a governing strategy, this manifesto will only make legislating more difficult if the GOP takes the Senate. That’s because Republicans have a bad habit of overpromising.

In 2012, Mitt Romney promised a mathematically impossible tax-reform plan to lower all rates by 20 percent and cut the corporate rate, making up the revenue by closing unspecified tax preferences. When House Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp released his tax reform plan in February, he attempted to cut rates and consolidate the tax code, but struggled to make up the lost revenue, eventually creating a top rate of 35 percent, implementing a bank tax, and taxing a percentage of capital gains as ordinary income. Republicans predictably ran away from Camp's reasonable plan.

Marco Rubio has proposed reforming the federal government’s antipoverty system. But his plan is mathematically impossible: He proposes increasing benefits for childless workers, keeping them unchanged for everyone else, and not increasing the deficit. He has yet to release legislative language for the plan, but those three goals are irreconcilable.

It’s hard to imagine what Senate Republicans could unite behind that would appeal to most of the party. If tax reform ends up in a Senate Republican policy manifesto, it will only reinforce the impossible Republican standard of drastically lowering rates and eliminating tax preferences to avoid increasing the deficit. This is exactly what Representative Paul Ryan did in his budget this year, where he reiterated his support for two tax brackets with rates at 10 and 25 percent. Camp tried to do that, but came up short. The dual-rate structure simply doesn't raise enough revenue. As the likely replacement for Camp as chair of Ways and Means, Ryan now has made tax reform very hard to accomplish.

Undoubtedly, the midterm manifesto would propose replacing Obamacare—but replace it with what? Senators Tom Coburn, Richard Burr and Orrin Hatch unveiled the Patient CARE Act in January, which actually had a lot in common with Obamacare. It didn't earn much support among the GOP for that reason. What plan could Senate Republicans unite behind that does more than just repeal Obamacare?

Will the platform contain a balanced budget amendment, as Newt Gingrich and House Republicans included in their “Contract with America”? Republicans would face stiff Democratic opposition to such an amendment, but the GOP may also have to answer how they would close budget deficits if the amendment somehow became law. They certainly wouldn’t increase revenue. Instead, it would require even steeper spending cuts—$1.2 trillion more than even Paul Ryan envisioned in his budget. The Ryan budget already takes such a huge cut from programs for low-income Americans that it is hard to see how another $1.2 trillion in cuts wouldn’t need to come from defense spending or Social Security. Those are two areas Republicans don't want to touch.

All this speculation may be moot. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has yet to offer an opinion on the proposed manifesto, according to Politico, while John Cornyn, the Senate minority whip, argued against it. “Even if we have a good election, President Obama is still going to be president,” Cornyn said. “I don’t think we should be in the business of overpromising.”

If only the party took that advice more often.