Political Hay

Shutdown Swan Song

For serious Republicans, yesterday's agreement couldn't have turned out worse.

By 10.17.13

The end of the current government shutdown, and the short-term can-kicking on federal spending and the debt limit, is replete with negative consequences for the nation and for the Republican Party.

Some are obvious:

  • The GOP’s only “victory” was Democrats’ agreement to enforce income verification for Obamacare subsidies. When the best you can get is a promise not to break an existing provision of law, you haven’t gotten much.
  • The entire process, which had about five minutes of the GOP appearing to gain an upper hand in public opinion by pressing President Obama on his refusal to negotiate, devolved into House GOP chaos and left the Democrat-controlled Senate appearing like the adults in the room.
  • The shutdown overshadowed what should have been the lead story of the past two weeks: the disastrous rollout of ObamaCare.
  • The drama can only harm the GOP’s chances of taking control of the Senate next year and, although still unlikely, will have the left drooling over the possibility of taking back the House — an outcome which would represent disaster for the United States. That said, elections are 13 months away and much of the recent turmoil will be a distant speck in the political rear-view mirror.

Some are less obvious, and more important:

  • The “mainstream” media’s desire and tendency to portray the GOP, and particularly Tea Party-affiliated House Republicans, as renegades bent on destruction (despite that characterization applying more accurately to the president) were reinforced by the too-public divisions within the Republican conference and their utter failure to achieve any of their stated goals. The past week will make the media both more willing and more able to act as propagandists for the administration, thereby making GOP legislative and electoral success that much more difficult.
  • John Boehner is substantially weakened in the public eye, despite having remarkably earned a standing ovation from his caucus on Wednesday afternoon for his leadership in a most difficult circumstance. There will be no move to replace him, but the media is portraying Boehner as a man who lost a major political fight because he was unable to control the Republican conference. Those who support limited government should take a keen interest in a strong, credible Republican Speaker of the House.
  • Barack Obama, already intensely narcissistic and focused on destroying those he considers political enemies, will be emboldened. A strategy of “I will not negotiate” paid off; he will feel even more invulnerable and it will lead to a steady stream of intransigence on every important issue facing the federal government until at least the end of 2014, and probably until the end of his presidency. Stubbornness and language about Republican “extortion” and “hostage-taking” and “ransom” will become the first plays in the administration’s Playbook of GOP Doom.
  • The bill to end the shutdown includes back pay for furloughed government workers, meaning that taxpayers got none of the government’s services but all of the costs. (Arguing the benefits of the EPA being closed for two weeks, while correct, is a waste of time.) Therefore, Republicans’ ability to use the threat of shutdown as a future trump card, even one that should have been played exceedingly rarely, is all but dead, but the ability for Democrats to use it as a hammer is alive and well.
  • Influential, principled organizations such as FreedomWorks and Heritage Action encouraged House Republicans not only to play an exceptionally weak hand, but also to bet too much on it, against players (Obama and Senate President Harry Reid) who have never shown that they could be bluffed out of a hand. As recently as Tuesday, FreedomWorks was urging its members (of which I am proudly one) to “stay strong on defunding, delaying, and dismantling ObamaCare” and warning House members not to “cave” to the Senate; they asked us to “tweet at GOP leadership not to sell you out.”

    And on Wednesday, with the deal announced and passage a fait accompli, the good folks at Americans for Limited Government put out a statement “urging the House of Representatives to defeat a Senate-proposed continuing resolution that will fail to defund Obamacare” and threatening that “No Republican who votes for the Harry Reid surrender bill will ever be able to credibly claim that they truly oppose Obamacare.” Seriously, guys? This battle is over. And it’s been an utter disaster. Retreat now, though not too far, and focus on winning the war.

    Although the organizations likely turned the whole sorry scene into a fundraising bonanza, events of the past week have lessened their ability to influence moderate conservatives going forward. With so few sources of good ideas around, weakened pro-liberty organizations make further expansion of government that much more likely. These groups must better balance policy desirability with political achievability, especially when going “all-in.”

So now what? What can Republicans do in order to maximize their chances of political and policy success, including when we revisit both the federal budget and the federal debt limit within a few short months?

Republicans, particularly in the House, need to retrench to what should have been their approach all along: Demand spending cuts and/or entitlement reform as part of an agreement to raise the debt ceiling. The public supports this policy and it will allow the GOP to return to the winning message of “We’re ready to talk, but the president refuses to.”

With spending cuts, a bird in the hand is worth far more than two in the bush. Do not give an inch on the sequester cuts unless other real reforms are implemented that cut government spending in the relatively near-term by at least five times the amount of sequester that might be undone. In other words, for every billion dollars of sequester spending cuts that Democrats want to restore, the GOP should get at least $5 billion in other cuts that must occur during the Obama presidency.

Do not be suckered by the siren song of defense contractors or the Secretary of Defense or Congressional perma-hawks into giving up broad spending cuts in return for undoing some of the cuts to defense spending.

House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) should take the Republican lead on the federal budget debate. He is smarter, better-informed, and a better spokesman for the GOP on these issues than any other member of the House (or Senate), and we know he can make the Obama administration look as foolish and destructive as they are — all with a friendly demeanor. He can also navigate the currents between House leadership and the Tea Party better than any other prominent Republican and is taken seriously by the media. Ryan should make clear that he will not be bound by the “bipartisan committee” created by Wednesday’s deal if it puts forward an anti-growth set of recommendations, and that the Republican House will not go along with a single dollar in net tax increases.

The House should keep some focus on Obamacare, but in the context of pointing out how it is already beginning its inevitable collapse. Occasional votes to repeal are fine, along with proposing stand-alone modifications or, even better, free-market solutions to the government-caused dysfunction in the health insurance market. But repeating recent moves to attach attacks on Obamacare to other legislation would meet with the same failure, while also allowing the media and Democrats to portray the GOP as obsessed sore-losers. Obamacare will tell its own sad story; letting it do so is the best way for American voters to hear the story in a way they will believe.

More generally, House Republicans must try to regain some standing, some moral authority, a public sense of being something more than a bunch of undisciplined radicals. They can do this by calmly articulating conservative, free-market principles and explaining how “Progressive” policies are destroying everything from health insurance to education to our children’s financial future. Make the discussion about the citizens (and, of course, their children), not about the president.

But in addition to being right, they must be believable and likable. Last week, Republican business icon Jack Welch put it in terms anyone can understand: “I wouldn't let Republicans market an iPad.… They can't market anything.” Politics is marketing, and the House GOP has been an utter failure at doing anything other than preaching to the choir; they need to realize that most people who aren’t in the choir don’t want to hear preaching.

Americans want calm explanations of the actual impact of government on actual people; standing by principle can be a welcome side-effect, but will not be a winning argument on its own with anybody who does not already share those principles. The GOP should find its most articulate, “relatable,” principled members and send them to a weekend-long intense seminar on marketing — and then send them to every media outlet which will give them a platform.

Both the sequester and the shutdown have shown even “low information” Americans that government does too much and spends too much. After all, the administration was so worried that people would not be negatively impacted by the shutdown that they resorted to closing memorials and denying military death benefits. Reminding the American public of these fundamental truths should be a “daily affirmation” for every congressional Republican

Senate GOP leadership must work diligently — and Senators Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Mike Lee (R-UT) must play along — to repair the chasm between Senate and House Republicans. A divided Republican Party plays into every negative characterization made of the GOP by Democrats and their media stooges, and bodes ill for Republicans’ 2014 electoral ambitions.

The only way this will happen is if Senate Republicans stand by conservative policy and principle. The Senate GOP cannot now become the caucus of Susan Collins (ME) and John McCain (AZ). Trying to drag the House toward “moderate” positions, such as agreeing to Democratic taxes and spending now in return for vague promises of reform later, is a recipe for political and economic disaster. Similarly, the Tea Party wing of the House GOP should make very public showings of support for Speaker Boehner, including occasionally voting as he asks — just because he asks.

Like a shark smelling blood in the water, the more weakness President Obama senses in the GOP, the more aggressively he will try not only to implement more liberal laws and policies, but to destroy the Republican Party as a functioning opposition. House Republicans, even those who feel safe for re-election, should take a major interest in stabilizing their chamber, which would help support efforts toward winning a Republican majority in the United States Senate.

When it comes to future aggressiveness, Obama has already tipped his hand, saying that he would push for immigration reform (which for this president means true amnesty) immediately following the reopening of the government. His overreach in both policy and rhetoric, while utterly within character, will give the GOP an opening to take back a position of representing the majority of Americans. Republicans must remember, however, that Obama’s move is not rooted in principles of how immigration policy should benefit the United States; his goal is to maximize Hispanic antipathy toward Republicans with a view toward the 2014 elections. With this administration, it is all politics and pain, all the time. Keeping this in mind will change the GOP approach to every important policy debate.

The political disaster of the past two weeks demonstrates the predictable result of playing a weak hand against a strong player, of rushing into a battle with no strategy, no rational analysis of the enemy, no exit plan, and not even a realistic set of short-term tactics.

The bad news for the GOP is substantial. The good news is that this need not be fatal to either the country or Republican electoral aspirations for 2014 if the Party, both within leadership and the more conservative rank-and-file, learn and then embody the lessons of the past two weeks: Balance principle with sound strategy, stick to a message that can resonate with unaffiliated voters as well as with conservatives, and maintain as much unity (especially in public) as is compatible with maintaining the moral and policy high-ground.

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About the Author
After years as a self-employed trader and investor, Ross is now the host of “The Ross Kaminsky Show” on Denver's TalkRadio 630 KHOW, weekday mornings from 6 AM to 10 AM. He's a senior fellow of the Heartland Institute and an Objectivist/libertarian so you can't offend him by saying he's not sufficiently conservative. You can reach Ross by e-mail at rossputin(at)rossputin(dot)com.