'Party of No' Works on Getting Voters to Say 'Yes'

Tired of being referred to as the "Party of No," Virginia Republicans are trying to transform their image into, as GOP officials say, the "Party of Ideas."

The concept is hardly new, in Virginia or in other states. Politicians want to be seen as having fresh, innovative ideas that will inspire voters and solve problems.

In the past couple of years, however, Virginia Republicans have been battling a perception that they don't like a lot of things.

No taxes. No same-sex marriage. No abortions. No gun control. No new spending, to name a few.

But after saying "no," Republicans appeared to struggle to come up with solutions for some of the state's most pressing problems, including traffic congestion, sprawl and the 1 million residents who lack health insurance.

That, some GOP strategists fear, may have contributed to Democratic success in keeping the governor's mansion and picking up seats in the General Assembly.

In an effort to reverse those trends, Republicans see the word "ideas" as the key to future success. You can hardly talk to a GOP strategist or elected official without the word coming up.

House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford), for example, predicted this month that Republicans will pick up two seats in the House of Delegates in the Nov. 6 election because they are "the party of ideas."

Howell is also pledging to increase the focus on his Virginia Reform Initiative, a think tank he created in 2003 to develop ideas to address problems without expanding the government. House Republicans also have yearly "ideas retreats."

Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, a likely GOP candidate for governor in 2009, is taking the theme even further.

Last week, Bolling announced he will spend the next year traveling across the state and soliciting ideas from the public to develop a blueprint for addressing the state's challenges.

Bolling will host more than 100 town hall meetings, which he calls "idearaisers," and then spend 2008 analyzing the suggestions.

In 2009, in time for his likely bid to be governor, Bolling will produce a platform he is calling "100 Ideas for the Future of Virginia."

"One thing I think our Republican Party needs to do if we want to remain the majority party is to get back to issues and ideas," he said. "It is good policy, and it is good politics."

Bolling's possible opponent in the Republican primary, Attorney General Robert F. McDonnell, has also been traveling across the state urging the party to start talking about more ideas.

Talking about ideas, however, hasn't always led to success for Republican candidates.

Former U.S. senator George Allen had hoped his reelection bid last year would be focused on ideas.

In August, Allen began a speech in Breaks, Va., by telling about 100 supporters, "My friends, we're going to run this campaign on positive, constructive ideas."

Unfortunately for Allen, he made his infamous "macaca" remark two sentences later.

Two months later, as Allen sought to salvage his campaign, he again traveled south to shift the focus to ideas during a rare two-minute campaign commercial.

"I'm confident that if this Senate race is decided on issues, ideas and my proven record of performance, you'll allow me to continue serving you," Allen said.

Allen's problem was that many of the ideas he was referring to, such as welfare reform and abolishing parole, came from his tenure as governor in the mid-1990s. His biggest idea in the Senate seemed to be his "National Innovation Act" to promote math and science education in high school.

Republicans in Richmond said they won't have the same problem this year, when all 140 delegates and senators are up for election.

GOP leaders in the General Assembly claim credit for approving a transportation package that includes land use reforms, and they say they approved record amounts of money to help clean up the Chesapeake Bay.

But as former governor Mark R. Warner (D) pointed out in a speech at the University of Virginia last week, ideas often cost money. Governors in many states are having to push for tax increases to pay for some of their big ideas, such as ensuring that all residents have access to health care.

Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) conceded two weeks ago that the Republican-controlled General Assembly is unlikely to approve a major statewide tax increase. So Kaine says he will have to "rigorously prioritize" to accomplish his goals of offering pre-kindergarten to all 4-year-olds and launching several environmental initiatives during his final 2 1/2 years in office.

Those are the ideas that helped Kaine get elected. Republicans will not try to reclaim the governor's mansion by forming their own ideas.

Bolling mentioned the word "idea" more than two dozen times during an eight-minute speech outlining his "idearaisers."

Voters should get used it, as the word probably will be in a lot of political speeches and campaign literature in the next couple of years.

It may be enough to cause some political junkies to yearn for the days when character attacks -- not ideas -- dominated the political discourse.

By Tim Craig Washington Post Staff Writer Thursday, April 19, 2007; VA04 http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/04/17/AR2007041702186_pf.html