There’s nothing wrong with picking low-hanging fruit. Ground gained with position consolidated is always a good thing in battle. Incrementalism is not a character flaw. As Aesop’s turtle proved, slow and steady can indeed win the race.
Impatient conservatives should understand these things when adjudging the House Republican Leadership’s piecemeal advances against government bloat. Critics may quibble that the leadership hasn’t been bold enough, but the disagreement is only about degree, not about principle.
Were there probably a few more cuts the leadership could have forced through in this past round? Perhaps. Could at least one or two “policy riders,” like the one defunding Planned Parenthood, have survived a bout of brinksmanship? Maybe. Are conservatives wrong to want more, to push for more, and even to expect more? Not at all. Pressure for a good cause is a good thing.
Still, it is important that a revolution not eat its own. The adversary is the political left, not the Republican leadership. There is nothing wrong with making gains and banking them, and then going back immediately for more — which is exactly what Speaker Boehner and company are doing. The abdication of leadership, if there is one, will not occur unless and until the leaders surrender without further advances — and even then, it will not be abdication unless further advances were still reasonably possible. A stalemate after gaining all the presently gainable ground is an honorable stalemate, not a dishonorable one.
Sometimes what’s needed, to be sure, is a Patton, gobbling up contested ground at impressive speed. But not even Patton could do such a thing if the ground were held by forces more numerous, better equipped, and positionally advantaged. Sometimes the best strategy is, to borrow a football analogy, to fight for Woody Hayes’ “three yards and a cloud of dust.”
If you’ve played a lot of the board game Stratego, you discover that bold attacks rarely win. Careful, steady pressure, while keeping key pieces amply protected, almost always wins the day. Don’t attack an unknown opponent with your field marshal. Don’t sacrifice your miners when bombs still protect your opponent’s flag. And don’t leave your spy hanging out to dry unless he’s already made his kill.
Politics, especially in the multi-faceted constitutional system designed by James Madison and friends, almost always must be played like Stratego. American politics rarely allows for Patton-like advances. And it certainly does not allow for Patton, or even for a MacArthur-like Inchon landing, when the Senate, the presidency, and the establishment media is in adversarial hands.
Consider, as so many others have done, the lessons from the first Gingrich Congress of 1995-96.
On one hand, about 95 percent of this recent Newt Gingrich column is correct: The GOP fared far better in the 1995 budget battles than it was given credit for, meaning that boldness absolutely can bear fruit. On the other hand, most of this recent piece by Glenn Kessler is also true: The Republicans “lost” when (and only when) they got “hung up on the numbers” and failed to “accept the winning headline.” The reality is, Republicans won the first shutdown of 1995, and lost the second one. And when they lost, they learned the wrong lesson by imagining they lost worse than they did — so, as time wore on, they ended up no longer even fighting. One lesson is that any loss against the entrenched regime can be psychologically devastating. That’s why John Boehner’s current strategy of racking up small victories, one after the other, is anything but cowardly. While we conservatives might want him to press a little harder, the general approach makes good strategic sense.
Kessler accurately reminds us of this: “In 1995, the 73 freshmen Republicans, about half of whom had never held public office, had been particularly reluctant to compromise on issues such as a $245 billion tax cut. But budget numbers are quite squishy to begin with, subject to wide variation in the later years of a multi-year budget because of factors such as economic growth and inflation. In calling for a shutdown, Republicans had rejected Clinton’s offer of an $81 billion tax cut as inadequate — and then ended up swallowing a $91 billion tax cut in the 1997 balanced budget deal.”
A similar thing, unfortunately little remembered, happened with proposed Medicare savings. (Note: My files are in an attic somewhere, and I am writing from memory, so the following numbers will be a little bit off, but I am certain they are well within the ballpark.) House Republicans were hell-bent on achieving something on the order of $265 billion in Medicare savings (over the course of however many years — I think it was seven — they were calculating in those days). The left loved to note that the proposed $245 billion tax cut was almost the same amount as the proposed Medicare savings. The GOP, said the Democrats with utter predictability, was taking money from poor senior citizens to pay for tax cuts for the rich. Unfortunately, the GOP positions played right into that narrative.
Staring the Gingrich brigades right in the face was a perfect answer, one suggested from the middle staff ranks but which was dismissed imperiously by the numbers-nimrods whose calculations showed that exactly $265 billion, not a penny less, was the right amount to save. As Kessler wrote about the tax cuts, so too with the Medicare cuts: Such budgetary exactitude in politics, especially with out-year projections, is sheer nonsense. Anyway, the perfect answer was this: Just two years earlier, Hillary Clinton’s monstrous health-care overhaul had included proposed Medicare savings of about $190 billion. If Republicans had been politically savvy, they would have adopted the Clinton numbers. If it had been good enough for Madame Hillary, then by definition it couldn’t be a heartless slashing of the very lifeblood of blue-haired old ladies living in derelict houses. So what if the Hillary numbers wouldn’t produce green-eyeshade perfection: Such cuts would have been a huge step in the right direction, and they would have been relatively impregnable against leftist demagoguery. A few jiggles elsewhere in the proposed budget, and the whole thing still could have shown a projected “balance” in the designated time frame — but without nearly the political risk.
As it was, Republicans were forced to accept Medicare savings far less than even the Hillary numbers — below $150 billion, if I remember correctly. So, just as with the tax cuts, they lost the PR battle while not even coming close to achieving the numbers they were fighting for — and, for that matter, achieved less than they might have done if they had asked for less up front but justified it more convincingly and cleverly.
Fast forward to today. Conservatives make a big mistake if they obsess about finding exactly $61 billion of savings in two-thirds of a year, from domestic discretionary accounts alone, when the annual deficit will exceed $1.4 trillion. Every dollar saved for the taxpayer is important, of course, but the big picture is more important still. The big picture is to position conservatives to balance the entire budget within a few years, and save a crushing debt burden from smothering unborn generations. A series of little victories, in one skirmish after another, can build a winning psychology, keep the pressure on the big-government bad guys, earn credibility with and trust from the public, reassure investors that big debts aren’t necessarily forever, and save the taxpayers at least some money in the process.
To repeat: Nothing is wrong with pushing the leadership for more savings. Nothing is wrong with trying to stiffen leadership spines. But conservatives should keep calm as they work out these intra-party differences, knowing that the real energy should be spent defeating the left, not bashing their own leaders. The leaders, for their part, should not snipe back. Conservatives have every right to press their case, and it is utterly appalling that Kevin McCarthy and company are losing their cool at Mike Pence and his budget hawks. This sort of cannibalism is inexcusable.
Bashing leaders can be useful in the right place and time. When everything rides on the result, as it did with the Obamacare battle, critics have every good reason to let loose a fusillade against leaders who don’t use every single arrow in their quiver to deny or further delay the left’s victory. But these disputes over the Continuing Resolutions are not that sort of situation. It’s not an all-or-nothing, do-or-die situation. Disagreements within the same team in these situations are fine, but they are nothing more than disagreements, not matters of sacred honor.
Save the vitriol, and the sharp knives (figuratively speaking), for use — from a united front — against the left. This is a long domestic war we’re fighting, and not every hill is one to die on.