“Obama Wins.” That’s the lead morning headline at Politico.com and the unanimous view in this city about the outcome of the government shutdown and debt ceiling standoff of the last few weeks.
In policy, we have the status quo ante: The government is funded at sequester levels; the debt ceiling has been suspended so the government can meet its borrowing needs over the next four months. The only change in Obamacare is a strengthening of safeguards against fraud among recipients.
In politics, everyone suffered in the polls. Republicans suffered more.
Here are four thoughts for Republicans coming out of the battle, looking behind and looking ahead.
Debt Ceiling: The White House took a “no negotiation” stance in this round. No negotiating on the debt ceiling in particular. It was a good place for them to dig in. Refusing to raise the debt ceiling was the GOP’s weakest card.
The credit worthiness of the United States was established under Alexander Hamilton and has been one of the country’s greatest strengths ever since. It has allowed us to fund our national defense at a level unmatched by any nation. The security and volume of federal obligations has provided a foundation for our financial markets.
By focusing on the debt ceiling, the GOP allowed the president whose spending has been in large measure responsible for the first ever downgrading of the U.S. government’s credit rating to pose as the preserver of this irreplaceable national resource.
Last week an eminent Republican, not now in government, whose opinion I respect took me aside to mildly chastise me. He took exception with my columns supporting the House Republicans and their allies in the Senate on this issue. “I cannot believe,” he said, “that we [the nation] are having this discussion about the debt ceiling. Do we know what we are playing with?” In response, I pointed out that I had recently written that Republicans should vote to raise the debt ceiling.
Still he had a point. The debt ceiling is a dangerous place to take a stand, dangerous enough that many who are natural and perhaps essential allies of the congressional Republicans on cutting spending and ultimately repealing Obamacare will not go there. Looking forward, Republicans should remember that focusing on it weakens the GOP hand rather than strengthening it.
Structure of the Game: The government funding battle was framed around the continuing resolution. A CR is a single bill. Between one set of covers and through one vote of Congress, it funds the entire federal establishment. So when an impasse comes, the operations of the full government are brought to a halt.
Wouldn’t it make more sense to have a separate continuing resolution for each of the 12 appropriations bills that in normal times Congress would pass to fund the government? This is especially true if the battle plan is to focus on Obamacare or any other particular area of spending. Get everything else off the table. Frame the issue on the specific areas where you want it framed.
Communications: Yes, the House and Senate Republican leadership should have paid more attention to making their case on conservative talk radio, to marshal the conservative base. But the communications problems for the GOP these last few weeks were much broader. Partly, perhaps, because of internal party divisions, for long periods communications seemed to be limited to floor speeches in the Senate and House and a few national television and radio interviews members of Congress gave.
Communications must go much deeper than that. There should be teams working all the various organs of media including online not just nationally but regionally, with special attention to swing states and congressional districts with Democratic senators and representatives. The president’s no-negotiation strategy worked because support from his own party in Congress remained unbroken. The GOP message strategy and the message delivery should be devised to crack the Democrats’ wall and break through it.
The Issue That Cannot Go Away: These last few weeks saw just the most recent round in a continuing battle that started decades ago. The struggle between limited and unlimited government forces in America arguably began with FDR but took on an entirely new dimension under LBJ. Conservatives regularly charge Richard Nixon with being too liberal. But Nixon’s strenuous attempt to cut government spending was a major – perhaps THE major — behind-the-scenes factor driving Democrats to seek his impeachment. Ronald Reagan fought the battle for spending control far more successfully than any GOP president or congress of the big spending era before or since. The Gingrich House and Dole Senate fought it well, too, and, with the cut in the capital gains tax rate they passed over Clinton Administration resistance, were responsible for the budget surpluses of that period.
The fight will continue if only because the levels of on-the-books and off-the-books debt the nation has assumed during the Obama presidency, and now projected, will crush the economy and the government as we know it – and with it our freedom, prosperity and security. Enough of the American people understand this alarming fact that the issue cannot go away.