BARACK OBAMA WOULD very much like to be president again. For two glorious years he stood athwart the nation backed by his Praetorian Guard: the Democrat supermajorities in the House and Senate. He could do anything. Obamacare. Financial regulation. Stimulus spending. Special deals for union bosses. Solyndra contracts for his bundlers.
Then the annoying Republicans took away his House majority. He wants it back. Every waking moment at the White House is focused on regaining that power and glory for 2015 and 2016. Think Gollum and the ring. Captain Ahab and the whale.
Obama can regain this power by winning a House majority in 2014 (and keeping his endangered Senate majority) or by breaking the Republican phalanx and creating a collaborator caucus. But the quisling faction failed to materialize. The GOP has not been enticed by the fools’ gold of Simpson-Bowles. It has resisted demands to unlock and break the sequester.
Capturing the House in November 2014 will be difficult. Republicans have 233 seats. Democrats hold 200. Democrats must win a net gain of 17 seats. Every Republican is sitting in a newly redistricted seat he or she won in 2012 despite the rising Democrat tide. Seventeen Republicans represent districts that voted for Obama; nine Democrats hold seats that voted for Romney. The Cook Political Report predicts a likely GOP pick-up of two to seven seats.
With their eyes on 2014, the Left focused on the Trayvon Martin shooting, even drafting the Reverend Sharpton to reprise his starring role from the Tawana Brawley drama. Obama needs his base to vote in the off-year election.
Obama also hoped that the immigration debate could be used to drive a wedge between Republicans and the growing Hispanic vote. The August recess was supposed to provide film footage of tea partiers and Republicans gnashing their teeth at town-hall meetings. Instead there was just one ugly comment by Congressman Steve King of Iowa. It stood out in its isolation. Dead cat bounce.
Obama has tried to “focus” on jobs by giving his umpteenth lecture on the need for more spending and higher taxes, but this is increasingly falling flat. Why? The median family income is now $2,400 less than it was in June 2009 when the recession “ended.” Unemployment stands at 7.4 percent only because the number of Americans who want a job and cannot find one has grown from 5.7 million when Obama entered office to 6.6 million today. If you count those who would be in the labor force if the economy was healthy, the unemployment rate would be between 9 and 10 percent. Taxes have been raised dozens of times.
What is Obama to do? The Republican goal is to minimize the damage Obama does to the economy while holding the House, gaining more seats in (or perhaps capturing) the Senate, and preparing for 2016. The Republican House can stop any legislative initiative Obama desires. The Senate can refuse to vote on any bill the House passes. The president has the veto if some Democrat senators pretend to be moderates on energy or crime or taxes. Stalemate. Mexican standoff.
But Republicans and Democrats must pass two pieces of legislation: the continuing resolution (CR), which will keep the government funded in the short term, and the debt-ceiling increase, which will keep the government from defaulting on its obligations. Here the teams will jockey for position like sumo wrestlers. Republicans would like to delay or defund Obamacare. Obama would like to increase the sequester spending caps and perhaps even raise taxes so he can spend more. Each team has some leverage. Each could overreach and lose big.
WE HAVE SOME history to examine. In the spring of 2011, the newly minted Republican House majority, 241 members strong, drove a hard bargain for the CR. They told the president they’d trade one week of government funding in exchange for every two billion in real federal spending cuts. The cuts were too small to allow Obama to claim they were extreme. They were aimed at vulnerable items—starting with cuts Obama had publicly claimed he supported. The strategy worked well and drove the White House crazy. On March 4, a two-week CR passed, cutting $4 billion. On March 18, a three-week CR passed, cutting a further $6 billion. On April 8, a one-week CR passed, cutting $3 billion. Following this approach for the rest of the fiscal year (30 weeks), the House GOP would have brought spending below pre-stimulus levels. But some outside conservative groups were bored by this “three yards and a cloud of dust” drive to the end zone. They demanded one big vote to “win” everything at once. They mau-maued just enough Republican congressmen into vowing to oppose any more short term CRs. Then there was a single big vote that brought total savings to $40 billion for the year—$20 billion less than targeted. The GOP lost its initiative and control of the debate.
In August 2011, Republicans fought on the debt ceiling, insisting on what has been named the Boehner rule—the insistence of House leadership that any deal contain an equal amount of spending cuts. If the president wanted a $2.5 trillion hike in the debt ceiling, the same bill would have to cut $2.5 trillion in spending over the decade. Republicans won for four reasons:
• First, they held to an easily understood principle of “reduce spending, do not raise taxes to continue spending.” They refused to substitute tax hikes for spending cuts as Simpson-Bowles and a handful of GOP senators suggested.
• Second, they were disciplined and made it clear that Republicans did not want to close down the government or “go off the cliff.” They explained that only the president could choose that by rejecting their reasonable path.
• Third, Obama very much wanted and needed the debt ceiling to last past the 2012 election. He did not want to fight with the GOP House again while campaigning.
• And fourth, Obama misjudged. He believed he had agreed to a budget cut—the sequester—that pro-Pentagon spending Republicans would eventually abandon in favor of tax hikes. This did not happen.
And this time? Speaker Boehner has said the House will pass a short-term CR lasting several months that maintains spending at the sequester levels. Senate or White House opposition would require “closing down the government” in a demand for higher spending. Boehner stands on the higher ground. The spring of 2011 shows what works and how one can overreach.
Some outside groups have demanded that GOP congressmen publicly commit to vote against any CR that does not defund Obamacare. Instead of insisting that the individual mandate in Obamacare be delayed or overturned, they threaten a closure of the federal government, oddly insisting that conservatives abandon the flexibility of fighting on the CR or the debt ceiling.
Congresswoman Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) has introduced legislation to delay all of Obamacare for one year. This takes advantage of the narrative already conceded by Obama that he is granting piecemeal waivers and delays to his friends in big business, the insurance companies, and labor unions. Already 13 Democrats in the House have voted to give big businesses a delay while also voting against a delay for individuals. How many Democrat senators up for election in 2014 want to follow them?
With a straight face the president could sign a bill delaying much of Obamacare, just as he agreed, without shame, to the sequester in 2011. He has set the precedent. His Senate worries about an Obamacare “train wreck” before the 2014 election. But delay is not humiliation or permanent surrender. We must keep in mind that Obama is as committed to statism as we are to liberty. He may give up a kidney, but he is unlikely to hand over his liver.