By the time this column appears in print, President Barack Obama and congressional Republicans may have reached a deal to keep America from going over the fiscal cliff. It is, however, unlikely.
Obama, who wants the argument more than he wants to reach an agreement, is playing politics at the highest scale. Having learned well how to play hardball in Chicago, he understands that he walks away from the whole business looking good if he can get the American people to believe that whatever happens after January 1 is the GOP's fault.
The Republicans have moved to a "prevent defense," with Speaker John Boehner saying—in the wake of the House's failure to agree to his "Plan B"—that going over the cliff will in fact be the president's fault
Pointing the finger of blame is political gamesmanship. It's more than likely that the things will not be as bad as most projections indicate if we go over the cliff—and there's almost a year to put things right. Congress and the president can always agree to backdate any tax cuts they eventually agree on to the first of the year, making them retroactive for most people and helping them avoid the sticker shock. Likewise the across-the-board spending cuts, which have everyone who doesn't understand them quaking in their boots, can be reconfigured so that most people barely feel their impact—especially since, because of the way Washington does budgets, most cuts come out of the money federal agencies and Congress agree will be spent in future years rather than based on what had been spent in the previous year.
The real problem, which is also an opportunity for the GOP, is that there are no new ideas on the table. Obama is proposing consistently to grow government and the Republicans are reflexively saying "No." And that's fine, as far as it goes, but it really isn't doing anything to change the country for the better.
The Republicans would do well to look to their recent past—and the Contract with America is a good place to start—to come up with a reform agenda that presents a clear contrast to what Obama is trying to do. On the fiscal cliff, for example, it's not enough just to be opposed to the tax increases that under current law are already scheduled to occur. The Republicans need to be talking up real changes, a progrowth agenda, that combines actual tax cuts with regulatory reform that will liberate the American economy from the bondage in which Obama has placed it.
The GOP needs to be talking up "big ideas." There should, for example, be a debate about budget process reform—a dry issue to be sure—but one that is at the heart of the current congressional dysfunction. A lot of smart people have already looked at this issue—former California Rep. Chris Cox actually wrote pretty good legislation more than a decade ago—that the House is in a position to drive, if it chooses to do so.
Nothing, in theory, is off the table. South Carolina Republican Rep. Mick Mulvaney has put forward a Pentagon-reform bill that his colleagues should look at and which deserves the courtesy of a legitimate debate. Too many conservatives regard defense spending as a kind of sacred cow, employing the "liberal" idea that the more money that is spent, the safer the country is, but this is not necessarily the case. There's plenty of room for smart cuts in defense and the Republicans ought to be talking about them.
Likewise the GOP has been largely silent on education, a bridge-building issue to the African-American and Hispanic communities who, sadly enough, are poorly served by the public schools as they are currently organized. "No Child Left Behind" had much to recommend in it but it is unlikely to be reauthorized when it expires. The ensuing debate would be an excellent opportunity for the Republicans to demonstrate, through an aggressive argument in support of choice, charter schools, distance learning, and other reforms, that they stand with parents and children while the Democrats are locked in to backing the school bureaucracies and the teachers' unions.
Saying, "No," while more often than not is a political necessity, is not a substitute for putting forward an agenda of conservative ideas. On a host of issues, from immigration to economic growth, from national security policy to budget process, from retirement security to educational investment, the Republicans have an idea to outmaneuver the president if they can get a leg up in the marketplace of ideas, a place where they traditionally do better than the Democrats. Not only is that a pathway back to political power it may be, on the national level, the only way.