“Don’t immolate yourself trying to save liberalism from itself”

| January 20 2013
Christopher Cook

Are Republicans in Congress weak-kneed establishment types who hate the conservative base and just go along with Obama because either A) they have no spines or B) that’s what they secretly want to do anyway? I do hear that argument made by some among my fellow conservatives rather often these days.

This is one of those points for which there is no dispositive answer that is 100% true or false. I do think, however, that from a position of holding 1/6th of government, there isn’t a whole heck of a lot that they can do. Obama and the Democrats have no intention of either compromising or moderating. They’re not going to allow anything substantive to happen, like serious spending reductions or necessary entitlement reform.

Charles Krauthammer’s recent On the new GOP strategy makes a fair amount of sense in laying out the case that there is virtually nothing that the GOP can do in terms of making anything substantive happen. All they can do is stop some things. Public relations-wise, they’re in between a rock and a hard place. The media will savage them if they obstruct Obama’s agenda (or if they breathe, or walk around, or generally exist). Independents—who fetishize “getting beyond politics”—will hate them for standing in the way of progress. (A lot of indies don’t much care what the progress is, they just like to see the parties cooperating and passing bills.) And the conservative base will resent them for failing to “stand up” to Obama and the Democrats. This is a very difficult position for the GOP to be in.

In reality, Republicans have a broad consensus on program and policy. But they don’t have the power. What divides Republicans today is a straightforward tactical question: Can you govern from one house of Congress? Should you even try?

Can you shrink government, restrain spending, bring a modicum of fiscal sanity to the country when the president and a blocking Senate have no intention of doing so?

One faction feels committed to try. It wishes to carry out its small-government electoral promises and will cast no vote inconsistent with that philosophy. These are the House Republicans who voted no on the “fiscal cliff” deal because it raised taxes without touching spending. Indeed, it increased spending with its crazy-quilt crony-capitalist tax “credits” — for wind power and other indulgences.

They were willing to risk the fiscal cliff. Today they are willing to risk a breach of the debt ceiling and even a government shutdown rather than collaborate with Obama’s tax-and-spend second-term agenda.

The other view is that you cannot govern from the House. The reason Ryan and John Boehner finally voted yes on the lousy fiscal-cliff deal is that by then there was nowhere else to go. Republicans could not afford to bear the blame (however unfair) for a $4.5 trillion across-the-board tax hike and a Pentagon hollowed out by sequester.

The party establishment is coming around to the view that if you try to govern from one house — e.g., force spending cuts with cliffhanging brinkmanship — you lose. You not only don’t get the cuts. You get the blame for rattled markets and economic uncertainty. You get humiliated by having to cave in the end. And you get opinion polls ranking you below head lice and colonoscopies in popularity.

There is history here. The Gingrich Revolution ran aground when it tried to govern from Congress, losing badly to President Clinton over government shutdowns. Nor did the modern insurgents do any better in the 2011 debt-ceiling and 2012 fiscal-cliff showdowns with Obama.

Obama’s postelection arrogance and intransigence can put you in a fighting mood. I sympathize. But I’m tending toward the realist view: Don’t force the issue when you don’t have the power.

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