The top news out of the House Republican retreat in Williamsburg, Virginia is that the party is considering a short-term extension of the debt limit in order to give the party more time to try and convince their Democratic antagonists to start cutting spending. The proposal, which according to the New York Times, is being floated by Rep. Paul Ryan, could wind up connecting the debt ceiling issue with the deadline for the implementation of sequestration that would mandate devastating across-the-board spending cuts. That would theoretically give the GOP some room to maneuver in order to avoid a confrontation with President Obama that few think they would win. But it is hard to avoid the impression that the main object of a delay would be to deal with the Republicans’ biggest problems: a lack of unity.
Like a sports team in disarray, the GOP needs a time out where they can catch their breath and somehow get on the same page with each other. As the votes over House Speaker John Boehner’s Plan B and then the final fiscal cliff deal revealed, the party is badly split between those who don’t want to give an inch on spending and taxes, those who think that compromise with the president is inevitable and those who believe the best the party can do is to speak out for its principles and oppose tactics that will blow up the economy and help demonize the party. But the problem for the Republican leadership is that even if they can buy themselves some more time to get their fractious caucus in line, the likelihood that a confident and aggressive President Obama will either accept a short-term extension or deal honestly with them on the issues.
The argument for a time out is that in its current condition with a leadership that can’t count on its members to agree to back a unified strategy on fiscal issues, Republicans are doomed to defeat no matter what option they choose. The president is counting on the GOP splintering into warring factions and has done his best to help that process along by goading his opponents whenever possible including his stunning attack on them even as the two sides were negotiating a deal to prevent the nation from going over the fiscal cliff earlier this month.
As Robert Costa and Andrew Stiles noted in their sum up from the retreat, even though Republicans remain in control of the House, the tone of the gathering was that of a defeated party searching for answers. Given the shock felt by many in the party over the president’s re-election and the beatings they’ve received over the debt ceiling and the fiscal cliff, that’s understandable. But Bill Kristol’s advice to them to “suck it up,” is exactly what they need to hear.
I think those Republicans who want to make a stand on the debt ceiling are right. Even though the odds are against them prevailing in such a battle, the party can’t simply stand by and let President Obama off the hook without at least trying to stop him by whatever means are at their disposal. That sort of surrender would split the GOP and make it harder for them to recover at the next midterm.
But the one given in this equation is that without a united caucus, House Republicans haven’t a prayer of doing anything effective to halt the country’s drift toward insolvency and to head off new taxes.
For all of their pessimism, the GOP still controls the power of the purse. President Obama may have the wind at his back right now but his political capital is finite. So is his time. If conservatives can use the coming weeks to agree on a strategy to exploit his weaknesses — such as the division among Democrats and the president’s refusal to deal with entitlement reform — their position could be stronger than they think. The question is do Boehner, Eric Cantor or even Paul Ryan have the ability to convince their colleagues that if they don’t hang together, their hopes of stopping Obama from worsening the nation’s problems are nonexistent.