To: House Republican leaders
Subject: Bringing down the House (if you will)
First, a word about climate: There is blood in the water, and there are sharks about. The media is going to search high and low for any hint of GOP infighting—that much you know. A corollary problem is that, unlike in ’94, when the media wasn’t so tyrannically constant, every little outburst of nuttiness from an overly ebullient Republican backbencher is going to be magnified, if only briefly, by a factor of 10.
So far, a couple of freshmen got nice press for the admirable symbolism of declining federal healthcare coverage.
Next, though, could be a call to abolish the Federal Reserve, or something equally nonsensical. Wait. That already happened. But you get the point.
The good news is that, also unlike ’94, nuttiness will not be emanating from the Republican speaker himself. Remember Newt’s “orphanage” contretemps? Thank heaven he’s on the sidelines this time around. Not only is Speaker-designate Boehner a more disciplined communicator, he has infinitely more experience in actually running a majority than Newt did in ’94. This is an unalloyed Good Thing.
Onto policy. House Republicans, it must be said, are in a truly enviable position. With a guaranteed backstop in a Democrat-controlled Senate and White House, the GOP Conference will be free to introduce and pass bills—like, say, repealing Obamacare—that will maximally satisfy the party’s base while avoiding real-world messes. [See a roundup of political cartoons on healthcare.]
The opposition will no doubt deride this strategy as consequence-free legislating—but that’s only because they know how politically effective it can be.
But, as you of course realize, this isn’t just about theater. Unlike the media’s shopworn caricatures, Republicans want to extend current income tax rates and block extensions of unemployment benefits for principled as well as political reasons.
In the short term, the example of New Jersey’s Gov. Chris Christie is instructive. He has maintained popularity while aggressively pushing an agenda of fiscal austerity. How does he do it? Simple: In teachers unions and state-government employees, Christie has found a juicy, isolatable adversary. This works on the state level, where things like pensions and teacher benefits are significant sources of budget shortfalls—unlike on the national level, where middle-class entitlements are the big driver.
The lesson is this: To the extent that “government” is a sectional entity—an interest group consisting of people who have not had to “sacrifice like the rest of us”—Republicans will find that cutting it is politically popular. To that extent that “government” is Grandma and Grandpa in Boca Raton, Republicans will need to tread carefully and—it’s possible to do both—honestly. (See, for example, Rep. Eric Cantor’s defensible “everything is on the table” punt.)
President Obama, being no dummy, already senses this—which is why he’s already reversed himself on freezing federal pay. Obama knows as well as anyone this is a gimmick—you should press him just to see how high he’s willing to “triangulate.” [Check out a roundup of political cartoons on Obama.]
If he feels politically weak enough, Republicans might find they can extract a real compromise on spending, provided that you and the Tea Partyers can agree among yourselves.
Any movement on significant as opposed to symbolic reform, ultimately, will be Obama’s. A party cannot—and should not be expected to—run the country from the House alone.