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How to Prevent Another GOP Debacle

It’s certainly true that negotiations over how to avoid going over the fiscal cliff were particularly difficult ones for Republicans. President Obama had a huge negotiating advantage: If a deal wasn’t struck, taxes would go up on everyone, not just the high-income earners, and the military would be decimated by deep spending cuts. Presumably Republicans will be in a stronger position as we approach our next governing crisis: the debt ceiling deadline in early March.

There is a twin danger for the GOP, however. One is that they enter negotiations assuming the president is responsible and acting in good faith—and that a “good government” solution will be found and a grand bargain will be struck. That’s not going to happen. Mr. Obama is a dogmatist and a committed progressive. He has no interest in reining in spending or reforming entitlements. He wants to, in his words, “transform” America. And he has a burning desire to destroy the GOP.

The second danger facing Republicans is they once again engage in brinksmanship with the president—that they elevate the debt ceiling debate and (unwisely) threaten to allow the United States to default right up until the moment when they cave (which they would be forced to do).

My counsel to them would therefore be to take the threat of default off the table sooner rather than later. (One way to do this would be to pass legislation that increases the debt limit for, say, six months at a time.) Republicans should simultaneously put forward reasonable and realistic cuts to offset the increase in the debt limit, in the hope that they can secure some gains. Which leads me to my broader piece of advice. 

The Republican Party tends to do quite poorly when it engages in high-profile negotiations/confrontations with Democratic presidents. It happened to Newt Gingrich in 1995 over Medicare and the government shutdown. It happened to the GOP Congress in 1998 over impeachment. And it happened to John Boehner and the GOP in the summer of 2011 and December 2012 over the debt ceiling and the fiscal cliff.

The reason for this has been, in part, because it’s impossible to govern when a party controls just one legislative chamber. The president, especially one with a sympathetic press, has enormous things working in his favor in any showdown with Congress. 

On the flip side, the two greatest electoral gains for Republicans in Congress happened in 1994 and 2010. Those elections were not preceded by dramatic, high-stakes, last-second negotiations that took place in a crisis atmosphere. Rather, they came in the aftermath of Democratic presidents and Democratically-controlled Congress’ overreaching. Republicans forcefully criticized the policies of Clinton (in 1993 and 1994) and Obama (in 2009 and 2010)–but they did not threaten to shut down the government, cause America to go into default, and encourage America to go over any fiscal cliffs.

So what does that mean for the here and now? The mindset of the GOP should be to jettison the idea that Obama is a responsible interlocutor (Speaker Boehner seems to have gotten that message in pledging that he will no longer negotiate one-on-one with Obama). Second, congressional Republicans should accept the fact that even though they have a majority in the House, their power to shape the governing agenda is still severely limited. There will be no meaningful reforms of entitlements or the tax code. Accept it; and accept that they cannot undo the damage of Obamaism so long as he remains president.

Republicans should of course check Mr. Obama’s ambitions where they can and when they occupy the political high ground (like on the implementation of ObamaCare). But trying to put America on a different course right now, given the present circumstances, is a fool’s errand. Prudence is a political virtue–and in this case, prudence argues for modesty of aims and expectations.

At the same time, Republicans in the House should pass bills with an eye toward sketching out an ambitious governing agenda—not in the hopes that it will ever become law during the Obama years, but simply to lay out a compelling alternative to Obama.

In sum, then: Republicans need to carefully pick their fights. Declare now that under no circumstances will they allow the U.S. to default on its debt–and then pass legislation to prove it. At the same time, Republicans should continue to argue for re-limiting government by offering up specific proposals. Hold hearings that highlight the failures of government. Demonstrate patience. Don’t try to remake the world. And lay out a reform agenda that Republicans would implement if Obama wasn’t president and if Republicans controlled both legislative chambers.

The public will eventually grow weary of Obama and Obamaism. The job of Republicans right now is not to get in the way of that process.



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