Louisiana congressman Mike Johnson, the incoming chairman of the Republican Study Committee, believes that Democratic control of the House of Representatives, at least for the next two years, presents an opportunity for the GOP to fine-tune its policies and message in order to appeal to a new generation of voters.
In a lunch-time conversation with Arthur Brooks, the president of the American Enterprise Institute, and outgoing RSC chairman Mark Walker (N.C.), Johnson laid out his priorities and vision for the 116th Congress.
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"We have dual roles in the incoming Congress," Johnson said. "We have to play defense very well. We've got to hold the line on many of the great strides we've been able to make … during the first two years of the Trump administration because as [the Democrats] have said clearly they want to roll all these things back, so much of it."
"We have a defensive posture that we have to play, but we're going to be playing offense as well," Johnson added. "We're not going to be wandering in the wilderness for the next two years."
Johnson's remarks reflect the reality that the RSC and the entire House GOP face as they find themselves in the minority for the first time since 2011. Stripped of committee chairmanships and the other benefits delegated to members of the majority party, House Republicans will have limited legislative input for the final two years of President Donald Trump's first term.
Apart from its diminished legislative clout, the House GOP will also have to confront its political realities in the coming months.
This election cycle the Democratic Party's successful campaign to retake the House ran through districts that Trump carried on his way to the White House in 2016. Although Democrats fell short of their "blue wave" expectations—the party will have a narrow majority of 15 seats, the smallest since 1945—their message struck a chord in suburban areas which for years had voted Republican.
In order for the GOP to re-take the House majority in 2020, they'll need to build in-roads with suburban voters, while not alienating their base.
Johnson, who was elected this month to lead the RSC over California congressman Tom McClintock, said he was not daunted by the task ahead. In his remarks, the second term congressman emphasized the need for Republicans to reassert their conservative ideology and advance new ideas that could appeal to individuals outside of the party's traditional sphere of support.
"We have to rebuild, I think, the confidence of our own base," the Louisiana Republican said. "Then we have to win over a new generation of people to our philosophy. If we do the messaging well, we do the policy development well … I think we’ve got a great moment ahead of us to do that."
The RSC, which compromises more than 100 members of the House GOP conference, will be well positioned to craft the argument for why voters should entrust Republicans with control of Congress in 2020. In the past, the RSC was instrumental in constructing the GOP's tax reform proposal and the party's alternative to the Affordable Care Act.
Citing topics as diverse as immigration, entitlement spending, foreign policy, and the deficit, among others, Johnson expressed that there would be opportunities for Republicans to both "work with reasonable" Democrats and take stands on issues where the two parties differed during the next Congress.
"I’m excited about this, I think this could be our greatest moment," Johnson said. "While we're developing, in our policy shop, all of these ideas that we're going to create … that when we regain the majority in two years, which we will, that we'll be ready to run."
Walker, who has led the RSC for the past two years and was prohibited by term limits from running for the top post again, echoed his successor's sentiments. Elaborating that the RSC was established to ensure there would always be a faction in the House GOP capable of pulling "legislation as far to the conservative perspective without killing it," Walker urged Republicans to seek out avenues for broadening their base, within the confines of their ideological conscience.
"That's the challenge," Walker said. "Hopefully there is some skill or art to knowing where that line is … anybody can make an argument … but can you take that message to new places, to new communities, and that is the challenge of the Republican Study Committee."