Strategy Considerations for the Republican House

Replying to Erick Erickson’s column, Barack Obama Is Directly To Blame For the S&P Downgrade, I found myself thinking about just what Republicans, in control of only “one-half of one-third of the government,” can really do to stave off the ugly future that S&P says has a 33% chance of coming to pass.

Don’t expect the Democrats to be any help in solving this truly national problem. As Senator Jim DeMint pointed out recently during an interview with Greta van Susteren, they simply can’t help because they are wedded to the idea of more and more spending to satisfy their constituency’s demands. The work of setting the country upright again will fall entirely to the Republican ants; Democrat grasshoppers will only be engaged in providing fiddle music to work by.

The Republican Party must become the Party of America, because the policies promulgated by the Democrats are not only unworkable, but detrimental to a stable society. While everybody was watching but nobody was seeing, the Republican Party has become the Big Tent Party we were calling for in recent years. The real policy debates are going on WITHIN the Republican Party, between the fiscal hawks and the political pragmatists, who, to give them their due, are right to recognize that if a goal is to pass viable fiscal legislation, it must get not only Democrat votes in the Senate but Obama’s vote in the White House.  If.  And when.

The strategic choices being resolved now are whether the goal should be to go that far, or perhaps to just get a bill to the President, where his veto would put him on the spot; whether it should be to just put our strongest plans out there, forcing the Senate to vote them down; or whether we must swallow our best ideas and accept a below-market Continuing Resolution and a similar swallow of an increased debt ceiling “for the good of the country.”  To be clear, what follows is not about either the AWOL 2011 budget or the debt ceiling.

Given the makeup of the White House and the Senate, there is no chance that our ideal budget legislation can be passed in the next two years. If we accept that it is irresponsible to avoid passing 2012 and 2013 budgets, then we must also accept that said budgets will contain items that we don’t agree with. Our mission should be to present the budget in such a way that we can also explain WHY we are either willing to or have been forced to accept those items, and also WHAT we would do if we had the ability (given a Republican House, Senate, and White House). And both Tea Partiers and RINOS need to come to an agreement to back each other in the fight, rather than to undercut the effort by backbiting. A unified front, formed from the entire spectrum of the Republican Party, will be needed to prove to those on the outside looking in that we’re serious in our desire to do right by the country, not just reaching for political gain. The comparison to any plans put forth by Democrats will be stark, and the unified front will help us get more of what we want.

A decision to accommodate the Democrats isn’t based solely on the politics of the situation, but it can still be used to advance our policy preferences.  A decision to confront the Democrats is a political one, but that doesn’t mean it’s the wrong one.

To take the confrontational side first, a decision to put a budget in front of the Senate that we are sure the President would veto is strictly one that’s made to set out our position, to force them to declare their position, and to make the difference clear. Since the end result would be no enacted law but some contrasting positions revealed, the process would be completely political. There is nothing wrong with that.  It would strengthen the Republican position among many of its members, and it would appeal as well to independents who have a desire for fiscal responsibility “no matter what.” It’s also a principled position.  Others would disagree, of course.

On the other hand, if the Republican House decides to put forth a fiscal package that they think is flawed but still better than no legislation at all, one which His Majesty would probably deign to accept, that would be both a political– and a Congressional responsibility-based decision. Politically, it could be seen as a responsible attempt to achieve comity, to make compromise possible, and to “keep the government open.” The people, including some Republicans, who are afraid of the consequences of failing to raise the debt ceiling or of the “threat” of closing national parks would applaud such a budget, as would many independents (again) who favor any government operations and subsidies more than a balanced budget. And of course, the independents who are farther to the left on the social scale would also approve on the face of it. (It’s unlikely these folks would ever provide ongoing support to Republican candidates or policies, but the idea is that they might stick with us for two years if we can show that it is Obama who is unreasonable.)  If they did this right off the bat, it would also be a signal of Republican weakness.

You may note the asymmetrical nature of the dilemma. There are two separate issues that promote the accommodative approach–the political appeal of cooperation, and the further appeal of our accepting Congressional responsibility to “behave like grownups”–while there is only the politics of the question that advises us to follow a confrontational approach.

While it’s nice to predict that His Highness will capitulate if faced with a strong House and a tough decision, it also means that we are convinced that he will regard what reaches him as a “tough decision,” and it further requires that we are, if not sanguine, at least willing to accept the consequences of his veto, both politically and as it affects the operations of government and the financial markets. Given his temperament and beliefs, he might feel the decision isn’t tough at all.  IMHO, the idea won’t even come up, because a really strong statement requiring a “tough decision” will never get past the current Senate.  If we make one, it’s the Senate that will hear it.  So eliminate the question of “What will Obama do?” from consideration.

My opinion is we should therefore first send a VERY strong budget statement to the Senate, one that will force them to explain themselves in rational terms as they reject it.   We should NOT be timid. The first pass at a 2012 budget should be one that contains everything we want, one that is “dead on arrival” at the Senate, but we must make them justify all the reasons why it is DOA, and we must answer them.  If we are right on our positions and principles, we will then accrue the support we need from the people to help us get every concession possible from the Senate, resulting in an package acceptable to most of us. This may require several iterations, which is why it’s an inappropriate strategy for a CR or the debt ceiling. It wouldn’t work on a short-term time-limited issue.

Our fight will be with the Senate Democrats, not with the President.  His method of operation is to let others do the work up front while he takes credit in the end.  He will almost certainly sign whatever is passed by the Senate.  I don’t see him vetoing a budget that his Democrat Senate has approved. Our job is to make sure it is also what we want.  That will require Republican unity and being in front of the curve.

This still leaves open the questions of what to do about the next CR and the debt ceiling.  Again, time constraints enter into these issues.  Whatever we do, we can’t afford to give the impression we can be “had,” that we are the ones who will fold.  We need to lead the way with bills that are reasonable and that we know will be agreed to by the Senate.  And whatever else happens, it’s time for those of us on the Tea Party side to quit arguing about the $100 billion or $38 billion or $350 million in cuts, at least in terms of “you broke your promise.”  It was worth the fight, but it’s minor compared to the next budget.

The debt ceiling issue should be attacked as a logical, fiscal issue, not an ideological one.  If we can make the case to the American people that we don’t need to raise the limit, we should do so.  We have enough time to try, but I don’t hear our leaders doing so.  If we can’t convince them, raise the limit and lead the way on this, too.  After all, the amount has to be decided upon.

With both of these issues out of the way, we’ll be in the best position to get much of what we want in the 2012 budget and show America why we need their help in November 2012 to get things right for the future.  It’s the only way we’ll avoid the S&P’s depressing future.  Democrat policies just make things worse.