Congressional Republicans, particularly Tea Party conservatives, need to get one thing straight before the next round of budget and debt ceiling negotiations: Principle means nothing without a realistic game plan, especially when you are the minority party and Barack Obama is intent on pulverizing the GOP.
The latest all-or-nothing, defund Obamacare shutdown stunt will go down as one of the most bone-headed political maneuvers in recent memory for Republicans. Why? Because, as Karl Rove has noted, Obama set a trap and Republicans walked right into it.
But what did Republicans actually achieve in the latest crisis? They preserved the sequester. They created some opportunities for primaries from the right. They clarified who belonged to the establishment and who does not. Beyond those items – most of interest only to political junkies looking ahead to 2014 or 2016 – not much was accomplished beyond dragging the GOP brand to its lowest favorability ratings of all time.
It's not likely House Republicans will pay too heavy a price for this at the ballot box in 2014, but it probably wasn't helpful to Republican Senate challengers in Louisiana, Arkansas, North Carolina, Georgia and perhaps elsewhere.
But between now and the budget deadline on Jan. 15 and the debt ceiling deadline on Feb. 7, Republicans need to do three things:
First, continue to spotlight the negative aspects of Obamacare and to advocate for a delay of the individual mandate, but treat this not as a legislative priority for now but as an election issue in 2014 and 2016. And be prepared with a plan if President Obama starts asking for a one-year delay in the very near future. Don't let him move the goal posts.
Understand the president's end game. As syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer notes, President Obama's "priority is to increase entitlements," and he has no real interest in decreasing deficits or the nation's $17 trillion debt. And given that compromise isn't in Obama's nature, he wants to "fracture" House Republicans so he can push his more liberal legislative priorities, such as immigration and a carbon tax.
Take a cue from Paul Ryan. The GOP's main bargaining chip in the next round is the sequester. Its very existence is repugnant to Obama. It represents a policy loss and a measure on which Americans firmly decided against his views. Republicans should considering trading the sequester for something bigger, such as entitlement reform. Entitlements drive the nation's massive debt, and good, smart solutions would show a Republican Party looking to solve problems, not exacerbate them.
At this point, the stories of Obamacare failures will write themselves – Republicans just need to make sure voters read them. And they need to remember they are going through the worst part right now. A push to use the sequester to save entitlements now and a push to make Obamacare's failures the issue of the 2014 campaign will ensure good comes from this debacle.