Customer Feedback, Week 3

[Lay impressions on the week’s politics for the benefit of hypothetical GOP leaders looking to know whether and how the week’s political messaging went over. More information about this series can be found here. Other posts in the series can be found here.]

Reactions to this week’s political messaging, particularly concerning House Republican leadership:

GOP Dysfunction and Brinksmanship

Ezra Klein wonders how much it matters.  After all, Democrats didn’t mind their party’s twisting the rules to give them health care reform they wanted.  Nor did they care when Obama took support from super-PACs.  As Rahm Emanuel said, “Voters don’t give a [blank] about that stuff.”  As long as they pass the bill, he should have clarified.  When this ugly process works, it’s called progress.  When it doesn’t, it’s just dysfunction.

GOP leaders were MIA all week until Friday when they finally unveiled their intended proposal on the debt ceiling, discussed below.  The rest of the week, they were just getting lapped.  On the Sunday shows last week, House Minority Leader Pelosi primed the pump for more tax increases.  She also said she doesn’t want to decrease benefits for any beneficiaries of Social Security.  Senate Minority Leader McConnell pointed out that when Social Security was enacted, the average lifespan was 69; now it’s 79 for males and 82 for females.  It’s an intergenerational equity problem, as he put it, and it cannot be fixed simply by tax increases without substantial entitlement reform.

One congressman on the panel on Face the Nation said, if the Republicans aren’t going to fix spending now that they have the leverage, then when? There has never really been a serious conversation about bringing revenues and spending in line. At least captures ad or explains the "extremist" temperament. "If not now, then when?"

The majority of the panel on Meet the Press agreed that Obama’s again term cabinet looks more like band of brothers been team of rivals. A staff, not a cabinet. Even Andrea Mitchell agreed that women are not happy about the lack of females in high places in the Obama cabinet.

How Grim Is the GOP Looking These Days?

Hugh Hewitt urges the GOP to see the long game:

I said to Mark Steyn yesterday,  "I don’t really care so much what the House GOP does. But I do care a lot that they state clearly what ought to be done."  I don’t expect them to win.  I expect them to educate the public why they ought to win and why the truly terrible things around the corner cannot be prevented by printing trillions more in hot money.

But even the long game is looking grim:

The Democrats have mostly won the debate over what the government should do, while the Republicans have mostly won the debate over how much the government should tax. Sadly, the two sides of that equation don’t come anywhere near to adding up. The war currently raging from cliff to cliff is about bringing taxation and commitments closer to alignment.

. . . .

As Slate columnist Matthew Yglesias has written, we are experiencing an epochal change in our politics, which he calls the “end of big government liberalism.” The progressive project of building a decent welfare state is giving way to the more technocratic work of financing and managing it. How government is run, more than what exactly it does, seems set to be the main battleground of American politics in coming years.

Recently, that debate has been dominated by budget politics. It won’t always be. If the basic services provided by the federal government are unlikely to change significantly in coming years, their delivery and design promise to be more contested turfs.

This doesn’t sound right to me.  The “main battleground of American politics” has been “managing” the Progressive state for over a half century.  It is not a new development.  In the 1950s, still reeling from a wave of big government Progressivism, Eisenhower acknowledged that those programs couldn’t be rolled back because the people apparently believed the government had obligations to discharge.  But neither time nor public opinion changes the essential nature of these new entitlements bestowed by government:  They are contingent, not necessary; artificial, not natural.  The right to speech and free exercise of religion do not depend on ten-year projections of GDP as medical and retirement benefits do.  On behalf of those conservatives newly curious about how to manage these contingent benefits, William Voegeli puts the question pointedly:  “[I]t would be useful to know how firmly the people believe in the discharge of each of modern government’s many, many responsibilities. Firmly enough to demand it, or firmly enough to pay for it?”

Those “extremists” in the GOP are right to suspect that, if the government stopped cooking the books and front-loading benefits to this generation by back-loading burdens to the next, the Democrats’ “victory” on “what the government should do” would reveal itself as much shallower than it may otherwise seem.

The Debt Ceiling

Robert Costa on Hewitt on Thursday talked about the Paul Ryan trial balloon about extending the fight on the debt ceiling a few months.  This basically co-signs the point made by Guy Benson and Pete Wehner earlier this week.  And the GOP has apparently decided to run with it.  Given Obama appears to have joined the game of chicken, believing (correctly) that a default would bloody Republicans more than himself and his party, and given the the only way the “big cliff, little cliff” strategy could work is if the GOP competently messaged it, this seems to be the only sensible option:

Republicans need to identify the terrain that will maximize both their leverage and their ability to win the public debate against the president. If you haven’t noticed Obama’s ability to adroitly demonize his opponents to great political effect, you haven’t been paying attention. With the purported threat of catastrophic "default" — with all its implications for our already-imperiled credit rating — hanging over the debt limit debate, Obama will relentlessly accuse the GOP of threatening to crash the economy. The press will largely play along with this narrative; during yesterday’s White House press conference, many of the questions were already premised on the assumption that Republicans are the reckless actors in the dispute. Few reporters will mention Obama’s grandstanding vote against raising the debt ceiling seven years (and more than $8 trillion) ago. Fewer still will explain what does, and does not, constitute an actual credit default. Instead, Republicans will be seen as putting the full faith and credit of the United States government in graver trouble, with potentially far-reaching consequences. I also believe they’d endure all that calumny before eventually buckling — a lose-lose, as framed by Wehner. Here’s an alternative plan, inspired by the Wehner calculus:

(1) Give the president a sizable, no-strings-attached debt limit increase. Sooner rather than later. (I recognize this is a very bitter pill to swallow). In doing so, repeatedly emphasize two points. First, that Republicans went along with Obama’s frivolous and counter-productive tax-hike-on-the-rich scheme to avoid the fiscal cliff, receiving virtually nothing in return. Considering the stakes for tens of millions of middle class Americans, this was the responsible choice — even though it was an extremely unpleasant ideological concession. (Lesson: "Revenues" and "fairness" are now on the books, and thus off the table in upcoming debates). Second, that the president’s last request for a $2.1 Trillion debt ceiling increase came just a year-and-a-half ago, yet Washington’s rapacious spending habits have already exhausted every last dime of those funds. (Lesson: Spending is the problem). Yes, this would essentially constitute two consecutive episodes of Republicans acquiescing to Obama’s demands, with little to show in return. Yes, this would anger some in the base, and it could prompt threats of primary challenges, etc. But it’s only act one.

(2) Allow the $1.2 trillion sequester to go into effect in early March. Don’t negotiate over it, despite its very troubling defense cuts. Remember, it’s the delayed byproduct of 2011’s debt deal, and Democrats should not be allowed to pretend that it’s part of a "new" agreement on spending reductions. The Super Committee failed. The White House suggested these automatic cuts, assuming that they’d never happen. They are imperfect, real, and overdue reductions in spending. "Shoot" that "hostage" of the president’s own making.

(3) Throw down over the expiration of the current continuing resolution (CR) in late March. The CR is the latest in an interminable string of temporary measures to fund the federal government in the absence of "normal order" — ie, passing budgets and appropriations bills. This is the way things are supposed to work, but haven’t for nearly four years. At this stage, Republicans will have cooperated with President Obama by reluctantly indulging his tax "fairness" fetish and by staving off "default" by ignoring Senator Obama’s 2006 advice on the debt ceiling. Sure, the possibility of a partial government shutdown would still be in the air, but that’s a "hostage" that could also plausibly be "shot." Republicans could aggressively point to their previous concessions while drawing their line in the sand at this lower-stakes, but still meaningful, crossroads.

Following this advice, Republicans would stop playing checkers and start playing chess. Even the backbenchers recognize that they have a fractured party only one half of one branch of government and the president has already signaled that he won’t negotiate, so Republicans do not want to lose a big bloody media war.  Besides, Democrats get all the political advantage of passing spending programs while Republicans take the heat for insisting on cuts in order to achieve solvency.  Hiking the ceiling is intuitively related to the budget, and it’s a leadership failure of the president and the Democrats that has left us without a budget for 48 months. 

Hugh Hewitt is still afraid that, because of the GOP’s utter failure to message anything, the base will just perceive this as folding.  I think he’s right, but the answer is to message better, not to hoarsely bluff when the president’s gone all-in.  On his show Wednesday, Ross Douthat said that the president is playing a four-year legislative cycle, basically trying to take back the House in 2014.  That explains why he’s so aggressive on gun control, the debt ceiling—basically, why he’s not stopped campaigning since the election.  He’s not interested in giving concessions because he’s interested in defeating Republicans, not working with them. The Republicans simply are not prepared for that.

Also on Wednesday, Jonah Goldberg pointed out that Ronald Reagan was working from within a much more liberal Republican party, and so he intrinsically was more comfortable understanding his opposition from the Democrats. Today’s Republicans, on the other hand, are working within a much more conservative environment in America.  Thus, they are much more comfortable with strident conservative rhetoric, given they have a strong base that wants to hear it.  But the downside is that they are much more insulated, untested, and unprepared for criticism and opposition from Democrats. That explains why they have so much trouble messaging.

Jonah Goldberg on Tuesday:

So, fast forward to the fiscal cliff deal. He got the tax hikes on millionaires and billionaires (albeit starting at $400K for singles and $450 for married couples). He also got a hike in the payroll tax and some other goodies on the revenue side. And, he’s still saying “we need a balanced approach.” As if the revenue side of the scales still has no weights on it.

Obama made a tit-for-tat argument. The Republicans conceded the tit, but Obama won’t even discuss the tat. He just wants evermore tit. (Get your minds out of the gutter, people.)

It seems like such an obvious, easy, point for the GOP to hammer him with and such an obvious question for the White House press to focus on.

Joe Scarborough went on a tear the other day about the duplicity of Obama accusing Republicans of recklessness when it comes to fiscal issues.


Joe Kernen on Monday pushed back on Obama’s characterization that raising the debt ceiling is as anodyne as “paying the check after dinner.”  The stimulus was passed by Democrats in Congress without Republican support. If they want to push through the programs like Obamacare and the stimulus, they have to be prepared for the contingency that when they lose power, the folks on the other side of the aisle aren’t going to be anxious to work with you. 

NRO reports:

However, according to at least one poll Republicans are touting as they gear up for a debt-ceiling showdown, more than two-thirds of Americans agree that “any increase in the nation’s debt limit must be accompanied by spending cuts and reforms of a greater amount.”

The president’s remarks early in the week, announcing his unwillingness to bargain on the debt ceiling, was designed to fork the GOP:  Heads, we go over the cliff and Republicans get blamed; tails, Obama gets a debt ceiling hike with no strings attached.  But as Josh Barro observes, this isn’t particularly fair:

This isn’t because Republicans are reckless, as such. Many conservatives are sincerely convinced that excessive government spending poses a dire risk to the U.S. economy, and that even if missed payments have severe negative short-term economic consequences, they will be worth it if the long-term outcome is a smaller government.

Barro disagrees with this narrative, calling it “insane,” noting that we should all be reassured by the “economic data” that everything will work out fine.  The problem with that is your mileage may vary when it comes to how much comfort you find in macroeconomic prognosticating.  Macroeonomics is, at times, as much politics as science.  As Keynes biographer Robert Skidelsky put it, “He invented theory to justify what he wanted to do.”  Economist Elizabeth Johnson said of him:  “He was an opportunist who reacted to events immediately and directly, and his reaction was to produce an answer, to write a memorandum, and to publish at once, whatever the issue.”  And Bruce Bartlett said:  “It is clear that Keynes would often put forward proposals because he thought they would be helpful at a particular moment in time, knowing full well that it would be highly undesirable for them to be maintained for the long term.”  Bartlett also points out the limits of economic predictions, given “people learn from policy changes and thus change their behavior accordingly. People may react to a policy one way the first time and differently the second time.”

The legacy of Keynesian economics, at least, is not especially reassuring.

The Gun Control Debate everything else, GOP leadership has been silent on this front. Good. Obama may get enough resistance from his own party anyway, and his executive orders by themselves will weigh on him. And it’s a distraction from the fiscal issues that need to remain front and center. As Glenn Reynolds writes, the national debt is up about 60% from the $10 trillion when Obama took office. In fairness, he also inherited the financial crisis, but looking two years prior, we see that, before the Democrats took control of Congress in 2007:

Even the New York Times noticed, spotting unexpected increases in revenue in 2005, and in 2006 noting that a “surprising” increase in tax revenues was closing the budget gap. The heady possibility of surpluses was in the air. But — look at the graph again — everything changes in 2007.

Viva Extremism

The Tea Party and can find common ground – why can’t Congress? 

[T]here is more common ground between left and right in this country than you might think.  And Joan and I (and many others) intend to do our best to explore that ground, and force intransigent incumbent politicians to take action on the issues where we agree.

Hear, hear.  The term “managed decline” means different things to the left and right wings, but they’re both correct where the incumbent moderates are wrong:  “Right or left, none of us are comfortable with the degree of influence that big corporations have on government regulation.”  Except maybe for incumbents, that is. 


That’s it.  Lots of links still left on my dashboard, but this week’s installment is already quite late. 

Tim Kowal

Tim Kowal is a husband, father, and attorney in Orange County, California, Vice President of the Orange County Federalist Society, commissioner on the OC Human Relations Commission, and Treasurer of Huntington Beach Tomorrow. The views expressed on this blog are his own. You can follow this blog via RSS, Facebook, or Twitter. Email is welcome at timkowal at


  1. Jonah Goldberg almost makes sense (which is stop-the-presses news), but, reassuringly. moves back into character before the end. Starting the increased tax rates all the way up at $400K is indeed a concession. Of course, the fact the the GOP was ready to go to the mattresses to protect people that earn >$400K is the worst possible political messaging, but that wouldn’t occur to him.

    Also, I found this odd:

    Thus, they are much more comfortable with strident conservative rhetoric, given they have a strong base that wants to hear it. But the downside is that they are much more insulated, untested, and unprepared for criticism and opposition from Democrats.

    Relying on strident rhetoric that alienates everyone but your base is downside too, or the American Communist Party would have enjoyed a lot more success.

    • The point is, I think, that Democrats have moved the country a bit to the left of where most Americans are. This is what presented the opportunity for the “extremists” on the right and made classical liberal ideas, even “stridently” advocated, much more welcome than before, especially as compared to 1964, say. Some other right-wing ideas, however, are still quite divisive, as you point out. And that’s the downside Jonah was pointing out: if they had less of a “mandate” to temper the leftward slide, conservatives would be a bit more chastened, e.g., we wouldn’t have the Akins and Mourdocks.

      • Akins and Mourdock are express their honest (if extreme) beliefs. I didn’t have them in mind, as much as Newt and his To Save America: Stopping Obama’s Secular-Socialist Machine , which is red meat for the base and distasteful propaganda to anyone else.

        • That’s probably a better example. I haven’t read Gingrich’s book, but I’m guessing more Americans would agree with the ideas even if they don’t agree with the “packaging.” Some with Jonah Goldberg’s book, Liberal Fascism. It’s a carefully researched book, but even he admits the cover and title are “red meat.” Then again, “moderate” Americans aren’t going to read a book about the genealogy of modern liberalism no matter what’s on the cover, in my opinion. This was the discussion I was having about “GOP Extremism” last week with Mark and Dennis. I think “moderation” is more or less a code word for leaving the status quo (i.e., the steady drift leftward) mostly alone, and just negotiating the flotsam and jetsam at the edges. Those of us who are not satisfied with that must endure the epithet of “extremism.” But that doesn’t mean there aren’t better ways of communicating those ideas.

          • In haven’t read the book either, so I’m agnostic on its content. Gingrich can be provocative and intelligent or lazy and bombastic, and I can’t guess the proportions therein.

          • I won’t quibble there. But I generally like him. And the reason I like him is because he is often intelligent, but not so sneaky about his ideas that he won’t spell them out clearly. Ideas in politics are too often masked behind “pragmatism” or heady poli-sci analysis. As Galbraith put it, “[t]he man who makes things clear is a scab. He is criticized less for his clarity than for his treachery.” “In the case of economics there are no important propositions that cannot, in fact, be stated in plain language… Complexity and obscurity have great professional value; they are the academic equivalents of apprenticeship rules in the building trades… They exclude outsiders, keep down the competition, preserve the image of a privileged or priestly class.”

            It is the deviation from Galbraith’s admonitions against clarity that is usually diagnosed as “extremism” (or sometimes “fascism”) when it comes to the right-wing, and “socialism” when it comes to the left-wing (I’m thinking of Robert Reich here, whom I respect at least for his clarity, which is much rarer on the left than on the right, in my opinion).

      • That’s debatable. Since Day One of the first term, the GOP has refused to give an inch. It was No from the get-go, a strategic error of the greatest magnitude. The GOP could have gotten more from Barack Obama than any other Democrat in history: he tried the bipartisan angle but the GOP would have none of it.

        The GOP thought they were attacking Obama. Truth is, they only erected defensive bulwarks, a static defence from which they thought they could hurl down boiling tar upon the Democrats. Perhaps the GOP thought they could buffalo Obama and the Democrats because times were tough: the economy was in serious trouble. It seemed like a good strategy at the time: the GOP had just taken a terrible beating. They retreated to the high ground, only to find themselves cut off, isolated within their own hideous rhetoric.

        If the country has moved to the Left, the GOP forfeited their right to affect that movement. The Democrats weren’t interested in attacking the GOP: after the Bush43 years, after the financial collapse, after the GOP’s ignominious defeats, what benefit could possibly have accrued from besieging the GOP?

        The Democrats simply swarmed around the GOP. They did things their way. They’re still doing it their way and will continue on this track while the GOP continues in its strategy of intransigence. The GOP swelled its ranks with “extremists” in 2010, hardly the sort of allies they needed. The GOP needed a defence in depth, valid counter-proposals, the ability to effect meaningful compromises. While they stay inside their castle walls with their obstreperous and ill-mannered allies, the GOP will not affect outcomes in the least.

  2. Quibble: It’s “brinkmanship,” not “brinksmanship.”

    • James, I was getting ready to quibble right back b/c I always see the extra ‘s’ variant; but online dictionaries list yr version, with the extra ‘s’ version listed as a variant.

      I wonder when that happened; I almost always, as long as I can recall, see the one with the extra ‘s’? Or is the extra ‘s’ reserved to denote multiple brinks?

      • I think it’s just that it’s a bit easier to say brinksmanship, it rolls off the tongue more naturally. Which means while I am playing the role of linguistic prescriptionist here, that effort is almost certainly sure to fail in the long run, and eventually dictionaries will treat the “brinks” version as standard.

        • Yeah, that seems to be happening, and it may be a US thing (the OED one notes it as a ‘US variant’).

    • Interesting. I hadn’t thought about it, but now you’ve gotten me started.

      There are several words ending in –manship that are also referred to in their –man variations. For example:

      “Helmsmanship” is a variation of “helmsman.”

      “Marksmanship” is a variation of “marksman.”

      And so on with oarsmanship, salesmanship, sportsmanship, statesmanship, and swordsmanship. With all of these words, we refer to the modifying word in the plural.

      One deviation is “horsemanship.” Although we do refer to “horsemen,” we do not refer to horse in the plural as we do with the other manship variations above. This is probably because “horse” ends in an “s” sound already, and the plural would sound awkward. “Showmanship” also uses the singular descriptor word (i.e., rather than “showsmanship”). This perhaps can be explained because, unlike the other words we’ve seen in which the descriptor word is a noun, “show” is also a verb. But this is not very satisfying, as “mark,” and “sale” are also verbs. Another possible explanation is that “show” is not a tangible object like a “helm” or an “oar” or a sword,” etc. This might also explain “workmanship” and “seamanship.” But it would not explain “sportsmanship.”

      There is a second category of –manship words that do not have a usage apart from their –ship suffixes. We refer to “penmanship,” but not to a “penman”; “upmanship” but not an “upman.” “Brinkmanship” seems to fall into this latter category, as we do not refer to “brinkmen.”

      So while I think “brinkmanship” is correct, it and words like it appear to be governed by more recent conventions and accidents of speech. Indeed, Merriam-Webster dates the first use of “brinkmanship” to just 1956. So I think “brinksmanship” is probably less correct but not necessarily incorrect.

      • This perhaps can be explained because, unlike the other words we’ve seen in which the descriptor word is a noun, “show” is also a verb. But this is not very satisfying, as “mark,” and “sale” are also verbs. Another possible explanation is that “show” is not a tangible object like a “helm” or an “oar” or a sword,” etc. This might also explain “workmanship” and “seamanship.” But it would not explain “sportsmanship.”

        I think it’s as simple as “show ends in a vowel sound”. Ease of pronunciation is one of the chief rules of word formation. It’s why we say “irresponsible” and “impossible” instead of “inresponsible” and “inpossible”.

  3. Those “extremists” in the GOP are right to suspect that, if the government stopped cooking the books and front-loading benefits to this generation by back-loading burdens to the next, the Democrats’ “victory” on “what the government should do” would reveal itself as much shallower than it may otherwise seem.

    nah, political preferences are very seldom, if ever, actionable to 2nd order effects. As long as people get what they think they deserve, and the system keeps running, nobody will want to change things overmuch.

  4. Again with the “No Budget in 4 years thing”. I know we;ve discussed this at least twice before, but I simply still don’t get it. Every year both the House and Senate agree on how much and what to spend money on.

    It covers the entirety of the government. That IS a budget. I honestly think that detracts from your point because you imply the government somehow hasn’t, you know, functioned in 48 months.

    Which to any casual reader comes across as BS. They’re not going to get whatever subtle point you have — there hasn’t been an official budget act, instead they’ve done the budget through reconcilliation — which is like complaining I didn’t pay my resteraunt bill because I gave them a credit card, not cash, and money isn’t made of plastic.

    It just comes across as blind partisanship — stupid blind partisanship. I know it bugs you/offends you/doesn’t count/something that it wasn’t an official budget act, just the absolutely identical in all respects and totally legal series of approriations bills — but that doesn’t make it “not a budget”.

    It just makes it “a budget passed in a way I didn’t like, even though I admit it’s totally legal and functionally identical”. Which makes the complaint…odd.

    • And it counts the Bush Administration budgets, which always omitted paying for the two wars they started, as somehow official and real.

    • Morat, sorry if it seems like I’m ignoring your point, but maybe we just don’t see eye to eye on this. And I spent a few minutes googling to find a source supporting your point here, but couldn’t find one. What I take you as saying is that a CR is a de facto budget. Sure, point taken. But it seems to me that saps all meaning out of the concept of budgeting. My wife and I set a budget for eating out every month. If we go over it, then according to your definition, we both approved the expense, so does that mean that it was actually “budgeted”? Of course not. If “budget” just means “whatever we spend,” then the exercise of doing a budget is pointless. In the context of a CR, Congress approves certain spending as a stopgap measure to keep certain services afloat. But a CR does not take a holistic approach to the government’s spending and revenues like a budget does.

      Anyway, Chuck Schumer on Meet the Press yesterday responded to the point that the Senate has not passed a budget in 4 years. He just explained that they have made some cuts already, that they always intended to wait until 2013 to do the budget, and that they intend to use the budget to get more revenues. Far from denying that they hadn’t passed a budget, he recognized that it presents different kinds of both difficulties and opportunities that aren’t presented in CRs.

  5. I think I have a theory as to why people like Barro might not see the debt as such a big issue. I make a certain amount of money and get used to the lifestyle it brings. If that amount is reduced, I don’t automatically change my spending habits. I always think that I can cover the bills and there’s still money in the bank. I can present life as normal, even though I might be starting to lose more and more ground financially. It doesn’t look like I’m getting poorer or into debt and I can maintain an illusion of good times ahead and the debt is an abstraction.

    I think that’s what is happening in the US. Most folks can see that we still pay our bills and there’s still money in our bank. Our own debt is an abstraction and as long as it seems theorhetical it isn’t an issue.

    It’s hard for the GOP to talk about something that most people don’t see. There are no bank runs ala the 1930s or Argentina circa 2001. We still get our checks from Social Security and the like.

    I don’t know the answer to this for the GOP, except it has to talk about the issue in a way that doesn’t say “let’s eviscertate social programs, but leave the military untouched.” What that says is that the Republicans aren’t that serious about the debt as they claim.

    • This is why I kind of liked John Campbell’s justification for going over the “little cliff” to communicate writ small what it would be like to go over the “big cliff.” A shot across the bow, if you will.

      • Of course, it’d be nice there was any evidence we were close at all to becoming Greece, Argentine, or hell, even the United Kingdom.

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