WASHINGTON — It's not easy crafting an agenda for the fall elections. Just ask Republicans in Congress.
They set up a website to solicit ideas, only to see liberals flood it with distinctly un-Republican suggestions. When Republicans invited the public to rank proposals online, critics lampooned the effort for small-bore notions such as ending a federal program for "historic whaling partners."
Republicans don't even agree on whether they need a new agenda.
With voters so divided over President Barack Obama's health care and spending initiatives, some think the GOP needs only a plausible job-creation platform and a staunchly anti-Obama stand on nearly everything else.
Amid the indecision, Democrats keep linking Republican candidates to the last GOP president, George W. Bush. In their view, the absence of a clear-cut GOP agenda for 2010 makes it easier to do that.
At political events, Obama urges people not to give the car keys back to those "who drove us into the ditch" in the first place. The jab partly refers to the pre-2007 days when Republicans controlled Congress as well as the White House. But it's mostly seen as a reminder of Bush's policies — involving the economy, Iraq and Hurricane Katrina — that left the Texan deeply unpopular when he left office 17 months ago.
Both parties may be indulging in some wishful thinking about this November, when voters will elect the entire House, three dozen senators and three dozen governors.
Republicans, citing public resistance to Obama's health care bill and bank bailouts, say Democrats will fail if they push a backward-looking, anti-Bush strategy.
Democrats sense a slight uptick in their fortunes, and they will warn voters not to turn back the clock. An Associated Press-GfK Poll found that Democrats bested Republicans, by 47 percent to 42 percent, on the question of who can best handle the economy. The survey also found that slightly more people now support the new health care law than oppose it.
The push for a new Republican agenda is stronger in the House than the Senate.
Last month, House Minority Leader John Boehner of Ohio and his lieutenants launched "America Speaking Out," a public outreach campaign involving an interactive website and town hall meetings with GOP lawmakers. Its stated purpose is to provide people with "a new platform to share their priorities and ideas for a national policy agenda."
Thousands of people posted ideas or voted on their favorite suggestions. But the project's usefulness in shaping a Republican agenda is questionable.
Last week, the top five entries in the "Liberty and Freedom" category were: ban handguns, "drop the idea that we're a 'Christian' country," declare abortion "none of the government's business," allow gays to serve openly in the military and legalize marijuana.
Republican leaders mentioned none of these when they began highlighting proposals from the project. Instead, Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., called for numerous spending cuts, including canceling unspent stimulus dollars and freezing government pay raises.
"I'd love to hear what you think about these ideas," Ryan said in a video on the website.
Brendan Buck, spokesman for "America Speaking Out," said Republicans "are plucking out ideas" worthy of consideration and consistent with GOP principles. "It's not a 'top vote gets in' " deal, he said.
The House's second-ranking Republican, Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, started his own agenda-shaping outreach effort, focused on spending cuts. "Youcut" lets people vote online for federal programs to be whacked.
Democrats dismiss the proposals as politically unrealistic or too minor to make a meaningful dent in the deficit. Last week's top-featured "Youcut" idea was to block the hiring of extra Internal Revenue Service agents to enforce the health care law. A separate proposal would end a program called "Exchanges With Historic Whaling and Trading Partners."
Various wings of a political party often spar over campaign agendas, and Republicans are taking their turn. For instance, former Arkansas governor and presidential candidate Mike Huckabee is criticizing Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels' call for a party "truce" on social issues such as abortion and gay marriage.
Some Republicans want a forceful, high-profile agenda such as the "Contract for America" that was released six weeks before the GOP took control of the House in 1994.
comments on this story
Others, however, see little need. Republicans have offered plenty of alternatives to Democratic initiatives, they say, most of them calling for tax cuts. Hostility to Obama's performance in office may be enough to doom Democrats this fall.
"I don't think people are looking for a new government program," said Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, who heads the GOP effort to elect senators this fall. "This election is going to be about checks and balances."
If Democrats think they still can prosper by linking current candidates to Bush, Cornyn said, "then they have underestimated how upset the American people are."