GOP Fear That History Will Repeat Helps Ensure It Will

March 14, 2011

Why is it that despite the Republicans’ resounding electoral victory in 2010 based on their promises for real change, many of us have a queasy feeling they’re not quite measuring up to the task, even in the climate of Democratic infighting and President Obama’s weaknesses?

The Hill reports that there is developing dissension between Obama and Senate Democrats, whose respective “political fortunes … are moving in opposite directions, complicating their efforts to win a titanic battle against Republicans over federal spending.”

Obama is trying to stay above the fray and letting Democratic legislators twist in the wind of conflict with GOP congressmen over a possible government shutdown. His plan is to ride in just in time to take credit for the ultimate resolution and be seen as “a bipartisan problem solver.”

Meanwhile, many Senate Democrats believed to be vulnerable in 2012 defected from their party’s proposal to cut spending. But hardly any Democrats, including the defectors, can be regarded as serious in their approach to the debt crisis now plaguing this country.

Yet are congressional Republicans capitalizing on this Democratic disunity and incompetence? To be sure, there are positive signs, such as the diligent efforts of Rep. Paul Ryan to help craft a comprehensive plan to severely reduce discretionary spending and substantively tackle entitlement reform. And Ryan isn’t alone. Other conservative representatives and senators are standing strong.

But when we shift our gaze to the Republican leadership in the Senate and House and even to some of the House freshmen for whom we’ve had high expectations, we see cause for concern. The first real confrontation with Obama, whose party had been trounced the month before, came in December and resulted in a compromise that I believe yielded Democrats a slight victory, notwithstanding the temporary extension of the Bush tax cuts.

Next came the House GOP’s disappointing failure to make much headway in defunding Obamacare, which it blamed on insurmountable legislative rules. Then Republicans scrambled like scared rabbits to avert a government shutdown and acceded to a continuing resolution until March 4 — and then through March 18 — which contained cuts but also allowed Democrats to kick the ball down the road another month or so. Vice President Joe Biden, who was to be instrumental in negotiating with Republicans, used the extension as an opportunity to take off on an international trip, apparently without even a superficial nod toward resolving the issues.

Through all of this, we get the idea that it is Democrats, not Republicans, who have the upper hand in these negotiations, even though the public is not on their side and the nation is in ever-deeper trouble mostly because of Democratic policies. We also get this uneasy feeling that to some in the leadership, the battle with Democrats is as much about positioning and reaching some kind of deal as it is about advancing the underlying causes. It’s a sense that we often get from those who have been inside the Beltway too long.

House Republicans did pass a bill containing $61 billion in spending cuts, but most conservatives and tea party activists believe it wasn’t enough. The Virginia tea partyers are particularly displeased with House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, who opposed an amendment for even deeper cuts (5.5 percent across the board for non-security discretionary spending).

Now we’re coming up on another deadline, and congressional Republicans are presenting yet another continuing resolution, which contains $6 billion in spending cuts but doesn’t, any more than the previous CR, include so-called “policy riders” that would address important issues, such as defunding Obamacare and Planned Parenthood.

The maddening irony is that Republicans seem to be ensuring that history repeats itself precisely because they are behaving as if they fear that history will repeat itself. We can only assume that they’re looking back in horror at Bill Clinton’s deceptive PR triumph over Newt Gingrich in effectively pinning the government shutdown on congressional Republicans. Utterly paranoid of being scapegoated by Obama for a current-day impasse leading to a shutdown, they are acquiescing to ongoing temporary Band-Aid budgets that, despite the budgetary cuts they contain, are improving the Democrats’ long-term negotiating position and thus — and more importantly — imperiling their efforts to slash the actual budget.

I believe that Republicans are severely miscalculating the public mood. We are no longer in the ’90s; we face a nation-threatening debt crisis, and Republicans’ primary opponent is a weak president who is doing more to exacerbate our problems than he is to solve them. A government shutdown would not be the end of the world, but the GOP’s failure to act emphatically on spending could be — so to speak.

One unfortunate constant is the Republicans’ incapacity to handle their electoral prosperity. They need to take a lesson from Obama’s playbook and start behaving as if they understand that “we won.” They must get over their irrational fear of a government shutdown and negotiate as if they have the superior hand — the will of the people — because they do.