[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?
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.
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.
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.
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
Like 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.
The Tea Party and MoveOn.org 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.