Jonathan Chait

What Everybody Misunderstands About The GOP's Choice

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The Republicans have a choice as to how they plan to operate in Congress. But it's not this choice that's being presented in the press:

But [Michele Bachmann's] candidacy vividly illustrates the central tension facing Mr. Boehner and his team: balancing the demands of new lawmakers, some of whom ran against the Republican establishment and advocate a no-compromise stance toward the Obama administration and Democratic policies, against the need to deliver some accomplishments at a time of economic distress.

Republicans don't have an incentive to alleviate economic stress, as doing so would only improve President Obama's chances of winning re-election. There is a constituency in the GOP for cutting deals with Obama, perhaps on reducing the deficit, but that constituency is tiny, notably silent, and highly unlikely to prevail.

The choice has been framed between cooperation and McConnell-style pre-campaign obstruction, which is explicated in more detail in Kimberly Strassel's column today. The reality is that McConnell is the moderate in this intra-party debate. The more radical wing expects Republicans to push their agenda as if Obama is not there:

In a draft of a confidential memo to be distributed to all incoming House Republican lawmakers, Dick Armey, a former Republican majority leader who is chairman of the conservative group FreedomWorks, and Matt Kibbe, its president, told lawmakers that a repeal of the Democrats’ health care law was “nonnegotiable” and warned that they would face a severe backlash from voters if they did not succeed in reversing the law.

“Politically speaking, your only choice is to get on offense and start moving boldly ahead to repeal, replace and defund Obamacare in 2011, or risk rejection by the voters in 2012,” Mr. Armey and Mr. Kibbe wrote.

Trying to repeal health care is one venue for this fight. A bigger venue is the budget. Republicans and Tea Party activists have spent the last two years describing Obama's budget and the deficit (in their mind the two are synonymous) as literally a threat to the future of the Republic. Most Republican members of Congress understand that there's a degree of hyperbole at work here, but the base is not in on the joke. You can't just say to them, "we're going to keep letting Obama destroy the foundations of freedom for two years and then try to replace him." And if they're not willing to sign a budget that Obama finds acceptable, Republicans' only other option is to shut down the government.

Indeed, as Stan Collender argues, it's going to be very tempting for Republicans to shut down the government next month:

It's certainly possible that the Senate GOP leadership will decide to punt in December.  They could say that they want to wait until their colleagues in the House are in the majority so that they can work together to cut spending, or some other similar spin-like message.  Instead of forcing the issue in December 2010, they would agree to extend the existing CR until early next year (or insist on some type of symbolic change) and then come back in January armed for budget bear.

But there are four reasons why waiting isn't the best strategy.

First, from a strictly technical budget (and likely least important) perspective, waiting until next January or February will make it much more difficult to come up with the actual budget cuts that will be needed to achieve the lower spending levels the GOP says it wants.  At that point there will only be eight or seven months left in fiscal 2011 and that will mean that the spending reductions will only be achievable by substantial reductions in personnel.  Even under the best of circumstances, it will take most agencies and departments a month or so to identify the employees who will be let go and to then implement the changes.  That means that the reductions will have to be much larger and the political difficulty in doing so much, much greater than will be the case if the process begins in December .

Second, the tea partiers insisted it would not be politics as usual in Washington if they were elected and this will be their first opportunity to show they meant it.  Even though the just-elected senators will not yet be in office, they will be able to put pressure on the leadership to meet their demands in December.  This especially will be the case because any member of the leadership (the chairman of the appropriations committee, for example) who tries to thwart the effort could be threatened with a challenge when the new Congress convenes in January if the threat comes down in December.

Third, shutting down the government in December might be the best way to seal the deal with the party base that was all but guaranteed this type of confrontation during the campaign and will still be walking around with its chest puffed out in December.  By contrast, not taking advantage of the opportunity might well begin to alienate some who would see it as a betrayal.

Finally, December might well be the best time to push a Democratic Party that is disillusioned and depressed from the election and a White House that is reeling from the election results.  It is not at all clear that congressional Democrats or the Obama administration will have a plan in place during the lame duck session to deal with the extreme political and communications challenge a shutdown will create.  By contrast, a threatened shutdown in February would definitely provide the time to come up with a plan to deal with it.

Now, Republican leaders assuredly do not want to shut down the government. But the alternative is to compromise with Obama, which means signing a budget agreement with vastly higher spending levels and deficits than conservatives can tolerate. After two years of saying they're "learned their lesson" -- the lesson being not to deviate from conservative fiscal orthodoxy one iota -- will Republicans begin their control of the House by compromising? Will the base let them?

That's why McConnell is the moderate option here. He's not arguing against making deals with Obama so much as he's arguing that Republicans should avoid taking position that Obama can use against them in 2012. He's trying to make the case that doing so best positions conservatives to ultimately achieve their goals. I think he's right. Pushing bills to slash entitlements and let insurance companies deny coverage to sick people is a pretty bad political idea for the GOP. Much better for them to avoid a positive agenda and keep its own agenda vague rather than unveil highly unpopular specifics. But let's be clear about what's happening: The prospect of two years of fighting Obama on every front while ignoring the country's dire straights is what now passes for mainstream Republican thinking.

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