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Does Either Party Have a Strategy?

Although the modern conservative movement has always been a coalitional project–realists and idealists, neoconservatives and paleoconservatives, religious conservatives and libertarians, etc.–the current round of GOP “civil war” stories obscures a key characteristic of the right’s latest fight. It has as much to do with a disagreement over tactics and strategy as it does ideology.

This has helped insulate the right from what might have otherwise been a more one-sided reaction from the public to the government shutdown. Republicans broadly agree on ObamaCare, the ostensible reason for the shutdown. The public joins Republicans in their distaste for the health-care reform effort, which is currently sputtering out of the gate in a way that demonstrates the incompetence and unpreparedness that has plagued the Obama administration from day one.

That has been one advantage for Republicans so far: they are clearly right on policy, even if wrong on strategy. And it is that state of affairs that leaves me a bit puzzled by Paul Ryan’s proposal to end the shutdown today in the Wall Street Journal, which risks squandering both the ideological unity and the policy advantage in the public consciousness. “To break the deadlock,” Ryan writes, “both sides should agree to common-sense reforms of the country’s entitlement programs and tax code.” On entitlements, this might mean:

We could ask the better off to pay higher premiums for Medicare. We could reform Medigap plans to encourage efficiency and reduce costs. And we could ask federal employees to contribute more to their own retirement.

The president has embraced these ideas in budget proposals he has submitted to Congress. And in earlier talks with congressional Republicans, he has discussed combining Medicare’s Part A and Part B, so the program will be less confusing for seniors. These ideas have the support of nonpartisan groups like the Bipartisan Policy Center and the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, and they would strengthen these critical programs. And all of them would help pay down the debt.

And on taxes:

Rep. Dave Camp (R., Mich.) and Sen. Max Baucus (D., Mont.) have been working for more than a year now on a bipartisan plan to reform the tax code. They agree on the fundamental principles: Broaden the base, lower the rates and simplify the code. The president himself has argued for just such an approach to corporate taxes. So we should discuss how Congress can take up the Camp–Baucus plan when it’s ready.

Ryan’s policy ideas might stand on their own as sensible suggestions, but presenting them this way makes two critical mistakes. First, if conservatives can at least agree on the major policy focus, they can avoid further factional splintering as the shutdown continues. They have mostly done this so far, concentrating on ObamaCare. Second, moving the goalposts plays right into Democrats’ habit of accusing Republicans of hostage-taking. If the right has a specific, timely, and relevant piece of policy it wants to fight over, the public can at least see a degree of rationality to the gambit. If conservatives just start throwing all manner of comprehensive reform at the president as varying demands to reopen the government, they will look erratic and undisciplined to those in the public who thought at least there was a clear point to all this.

Meanwhile, if Republicans are in danger of squandering more of the public’s approval than they can afford, so are the Democrats. Bill Moyers’s accusation that this government shutdown amounts to “Secession by another means” is irrationality on steroids and indicates that liberal pundits and journalists are so upset by the standoff that they have taken leave of their senses.

And Jonathan Last offers in the Weekly Standard a concise rundown of the National Park Service’s “partisan assault on the citizenry” on behalf of the Obama White House’s intent to harass war veterans and senior citizens in anger and frustration at the current gridlock in Washington. Last writes: “It’s one thing for politicians to play shutdown theater. It’s another thing entirely for a civil bureaucracy entrusted with the privilege of caring for our national heritage to wage war against the citizenry on behalf of a political party.”

Indeed it is. And the political party on whose behalf this abuse is being carried out, the Democratic Party, cannot possibly make a credible case to being either rational or a responsible steward of the federal government. And so the public declares a pox on both houses–though still a slightly more concentrated pox on the GOP. Despite conservatives’ strident opposition to the federal bureaucracy, it appears Democrats are still far more adept at portraying big government as a spiteful bully.


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