The Republicans squandered the summer of 2013. Rather than use the long congressional recess to lay the groundwork among the American people for a plan to further reduce spending or to prepare them for the possibility of a government shutdown triggered by President Barack Obama over his insistence on going ahead with Obamacare, the party went fishing.
Not so a few conservative groups, who used July and August as a launching pad for an assault on the GOP leadership. Their mission: box in the Republicans in the House and Senate so that the only continuing resolution put forward at the end of the fiscal year was one that, as they put it, "defunded Obamacare."
In a vacuum almost any message beats no message. The "defunders" eventually carried the day, the president and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada dug their heels in and the government partially and temporarily closed.
As things turned out, the whole business was a disaster for the GOP, pitting conservative against conservative in a competition to see who was the purest and the most committed as the party fell nine points nationally on the generic ballot test. Were it not for the complete disaster that the introduction of Obamacare to the American people turned out to be, the Republicans would still be on the ropes.
Fortunately for the Republicans, the president and his allies handed the GOP a gift – several weeks of fumbling, confused, stuttering explanations for why the Healthcare.gov website didn't work. The introduction of Obamacare put the Democrats into a political hole and, contrary to the best advice, they proceeded to keep digging.
Right now, the House and Senate Budget Committee leaders – Wisconsin Republican Rep. Paul Ryan and Sen. Patty Murray, Democrat from Washington state – are trying to work out a budget that will determine how much money the federal government has to spend for the rest of the year. They may get there before the January 15 deadline, but they may not and, even if they do, whatever they come up with may not have the votes to pass through Congress and get to the president's desk.
If the Republicans are smart – and that, admittedly, is a pretty big "if" these days – they will start to define the upcoming fight, if there is going to be a fight, as one that is being waged to defend the very real cuts in federal spending created by the so-called sequester.
Looking back, the sequester was originally Barack Obama's idea but one apparently not offered up in good faith; the White House believed congressional Republicans would never accept it because of the cuts it would mean for the Pentagon. Not only did they accept it, however, they embraced it, leaving Obama with egg on his face and with a financial choke collar around the necks of the tax and spenders in Congress.
Obama wants the sequester gone, as do Democrats like Reid. In its place they want, and no surprise here, more spending and higher taxes. The GOP needs to say "No" – and in a loud, clear and unified voice.
There may be some room to maneuver. By selling off government assets like pieces of spectrum or proposing and passing a one-year delay in the onset of the individual mandate that is at the core of Obamacare, they may be able to generate enough savings to allow total spending to rise. It's a deal they should accept with the greatest of caution. An effort to delay the individual mandate might just provoke the president into shutting the government down again which, as most everyone agrees, is something to be avoided.
The fight against Obamacare is one that is going to be won like a successful series of short passes and by running the ball downfield starting from the offense's one yard line and ending with a touchdown on the opposite end of the field. The sequester victory has already been won. It would be politically foolish and economically harmful to give it back. A clean CR that locks in the savings from the sequester is the best possible play and one the Republicans should be ready to try – but only after taking the Christmas recess to explain over and over again to the American people what they are doing and why.
The Democrats have already made clear they would prefer another government shutdown, which they see as a political winner for their team, if they can't get the sequestration monkey off the government's back. Going into the 2014 election they want to spend, spend, spend the taxpayers' money in support of their most important electoral constituencies. They want a confrontation and they will do what they must to get one.
The GOP needs to be strategic and smart, which begins by taking steps to ensure they win the argument over spending. They need to commit now to staying in session for as long as it takes before the end of the year to pass a continuing resolution that locks in the lower budget numbers. This would not preclude Congress from voting on a Ryan/Murray plan that moved the numbers around, but would make sure that such a vote would be taken in an environment where a shutdown is off the table and an acceptable fallback position is already in place.