Picking Fights Republicans Can Win
January 9, 2013
Watching the news media this weekend start the process of setting up Republicans for another losing fight has been depressing.
Congressional Republicans seem to be moving toward three decisions that are profoundly wrong.
Just listening this weekend some Republican leaders seem to be saying:
1. They will fight over the debt ceiling;
2. They are urging President Barack Obama to lead;
3. They have come out of one failed cycle of secret negotiations with the White House and seem eager to start right back in on a new cycle of negotiations.
All three are demonstrably wrong.
1. The debt ceiling is a terrible place to fight when there is a Sequester bill and a Continuing Resolution available.
2. I do not want President Obama to lead. No conservative wants President Obama to lead. He is an ultra-liberal who really believes in the power of big government. Why would any Republican ask him to lead? I want the House Republicans to lead. Conservatives want the House Republicans to lead. Furthermore, Republicans should quit going on television and asking President Obama to be “reasonable.” The president will concede to Republicans exactly what they coerce him into giving and not one inch more.
3. Negotiations are the weakest of the five legislative branch tools. Appropriations, legislation, oversight, and communications are all tools which should be used to set up a framework for successful negotiations. Negotiating with a president without using the first four tools is an invitation to defeat.
Let’s start with the futility of focusing on the debt ceiling.
President Obama set the stage Saturday with his weekly radio address when he announced that he will insist on a clean debt ceiling. In doing so he actually outlined for Republicans the two fights they can win.
Consider the president’s argument:
“(O)ne thing I will not compromise over is whether or not Congress should pay the tab for a bill they’ve already racked up. If Congress refuses to give the United States the ability to pay its bills on time, the consequences for the entire global economy could be catastrophic. The last time Congress threatened this course of action, our entire economy suffered for it. Our families and our businesses cannot afford that dangerous game again.”
Without realizing it the president just outlined the winning strategy for Republicans.
He suggested that the time for Congress to draw the line on spending is before they “rack up the bills” — to paraphrase the president.
We have two immediate opportunities to heed the president’s words: the Sequester bill that is coming up in 60 days and the Continuing Resolution at the end of March.
There is an enormous difference between the Continuing Resolution, the Sequester bill and the debt ceiling. The debt ceiling involves the faith and credit of the United States. It can not be held hostage because the crisis impact of failing to pay the government’s debts would be immediate, worldwide, and shattering.
Every element of the business community and the news media will spend the next two months beating up Republicans if the debt ceiling is the focus of the conflict. This past weekend’s media focus is just a taste of what is coming.
If Republicans fall for the debt ceiling trap they will once again be isolated in a corner, identified as negative extremists, and ultimately forced to back down with maximum internal conflict and bitterness among conservatives and Republicans.
However, they have two wonderful, clear, and far better fights available in the Continuing Resolution and the Sequester bill.
Both involve spending.
Both allow Republicans to quote President Obama’s Saturday radio talk over and over and over again.
The time to shrink future debt ceilings is by cutting spending now.
Threatening to stop the debt ceiling guarantees that the business community and the news media put more and more pressure on Congressional Republicans. In the end Republicans will be forced to cave.
Threatening to selectively close, eliminate, or shrink various parts of the government through spending bills puts President Obama and Congressional Democrats on defense.
Is there any Democrat who can argue with a straight face that in a $3.7 trillion federal government there is nothing which can not be cut or eliminated? Polls consistently show three out of four Americans favor cutting government spending.
A fight over cutting spending is a fight in which the natural advantage goes to the Republicans.
This advantage can be strengthened by House Republicans taking five big strategic steps:
1. Systematic hearings by every committee and subcommittee focusing on waste in government and opportunities to cut spending and reform government.
2. An alliance with the 30 Republican governors with them testifying on how to reform the federal government, how to cut spending and how to implement the Tenth Amendment and return power and responsibility to the states and with governors providing communications support back home.
3. An aggressive outreach to arouse and coordinate every group that wants smaller government so there is a nationwide clamor for spending cuts.
4. A very intense, disciplined, coordinated communications effort by every member, committee and subcommittee.
5. A very creative series of legislative efforts including: 1. Breaking the CR into a series of bills with national security and public safety funded for the rest of the fiscal year, while some of the smaller CRs could last for 60 days and lead to continuing fights over spending and reform (think Departments of Labor, HUD, FCC, etc. as hard to arouse public indignation over); 2. Attaching various major reforms to non-national security Continuing Resolutions; 3. Finding every reasonable bill introduced by Democrats in the House or Senate and bringing them up to pressure Democrats into voting for their own members’ bills; 4. Finding positive solutions that will improve the lives of people (for example, renewing visas is absurdly expensive and frustrating — modernizing the system will open a positive dialogue with virtually every immigrant group).
This is not a call for softness or compromise.
I am prepared to be very tough. I just want to be tough on a battlefield where Republicans can define the fight, communicate the principles, and win.
This is a call for picking very tough tenacious fights on grounds that conservatives and Republicans can win.
I led two government shut downs, for six days in November, 1995 and 21 days in December, 1995 and January, 1996. Those two closings led to the first domestic discretionary spending cuts since 1981. They also led President Bill Clinton to come to the Congress in the State of the Union and say that “the era of big government is over.”
Once President Clinton concluded House Republicans were serious about getting to a smaller, balanced budget we were able to work toward welfare reform in 1996. Note that we didn’t get welfare reform by back room deals in secret. We passed welfare reform twice and it was vetoed twice. It was only on the third passage, closer to the election, that the president finally signed the bill.
Some people in the news media think closing the government hurt us. To the contrary. When we closed the government no House Republican majority had been re-elected since 1928. After the confrontation and the subsequent negotiations House Republicans were able to survive a bad Presidential year and we were able to run ahead of the ticket and get re-elected for the first time in 68 years. People believed we were serious, committed, and tough but also that we were responsible and realistic.
Republicans have to confront the reality that we can get a good bit from President Obama if he has no alternative. Every conservative gain will come by strategically setting up fights we can win. Every liberal loss will come because the American people decide we won the argument, thereby forcing Democrats to go along with our proposals.
There are no inside strategies that will move President Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). Only a methodical steady outside strategy will put them in a position where they are cutting their losses.
In the process we will set the stage for very successful elections in 2014 and 2016.