The Republicans have a losing hand in the negotiations over the 2011 Federal budget. They have a losing hand in the upcoming vote to raise the debt ceiling.
They have a winning hand in Rep. Paul Ryan’s “Roadmap for America’s Future” and the 2012 budget proposal contained therein.
Predictably, they will play the losing hands and toss the winning one away.
The “battle” over the latter half of the FY 2011 Federal budget, the timeline of which you can read here, offers the GOP leadership two possible outcomes: (1) angry general election swing voters, or (2) angry GOP-base primary voters.
Don’t make a deal and the general electorate will think you irresponsible. Do make a deal and — if it’s squishy, which it necessarily will be — the Tea Party will have your head.
President Obama wins either way, which makes his negotiating position simple: Don’t budge and go for the government shutdown. The moment that happens (if it happens), unleash everything in the White House arsenal to make sure that voters understand that the shutdown was “caused” by “extreme” right-wing Republicans, who can’t be trusted to run anything, much less the government of the United States of America.
To add insult to injury, have everyone at The White House offer profuse sympathy for Speaker Boehner on the record and on deep background. Express admiration for his perseverance. Make note of how difficult it must be for him to deal with all those horrible right-wing extremists every day. Commend him (again, profusely) for trying so hard to get a deal done.
That will leave the Republicans hopelessly divided. In due course and probably in the middle of the night, Speaker Boehner will have to cut his deal with conservative and moderate House Democrats (rather than Tea Party conservatives) to get government operations back up and running. The press will write it just as the Obama Administration would have it written. Game. First Set, Obama.
On the much more destabilizing issue of the debt ceiling, Obama’s stance is equally simple. Bombard the press with every imaginable disaster that might occur if the debt ceiling is not lifted and then let the House Republicans fight amongst themselves until the last possible minute. If they don’t get on board, they get all the blame for whatever disaster might occur. If they do get on board (kicking and screaming all the way). they look even weaker and more pathetic than they will when they inevitably cave on the 2011 budget “compromise.” Again, this offers a narrative that the national press corps will only be too happy to write. Game. Set. Match. Obama.
The third option is to throw in both losing hands and stake the GOP’s future on the Ryan proposal. Yes, there are flaws. They can be amended, changed, fixed, whatever. But the fact is that the Ryan proposal is only one of two on the table (the other is the Simpson-Bowles report, which President Obama immediately disowned) that actually deals with the reality of American governance.
We really are going broke. Spending on health and pensions and defence and interest on the debt and discretionary line items really is unsustainable. The tax code really does need to be simplified and made more fair. If we don’t deal with these things now, they become more difficult, more intractable, less fixable. Pretending that everything will somehow work out isn’t a strategy. It’s insanity.
The great advantage (strategically) of staking the GOP’s future on dealing with reality is that it clarifies things. And it aligns the GOP with history and the facts on the ground. Stake the party’s future on the Ryan plan or something very much like it and President Obama becomes the pretender and the Democrats become the party of the loons. That’s a narrative the press will never admit to publicly. But they won’t actively dispute it. Already, some of the most generous praise for Rep. Ryan’s effort has come from liberal journalists. Jacob Weisberg positively glowed over Ryan’s effort in Slate. Fareed Zakaria did the same in Time magazine.
Leading the national conversation on how to deal with America’s ocean of debt is, eventually, the commanding position in American politics. If the GOP sets the agenda, then by definition they become the leadership party. And, more than anything in American politics today, voters are desperate for serious leadership.
In the short-term, staking the future of the GOP may cost the party the 2012 presidential election. That’s OK, the way they’re going, they’re likely to lose it anyway. Betting on Ryan isn’t a short-term play. It’s a five-year plan. But it’s a five year plan that puts the party on the right side of history and pushes the Democrats into the position of defending something that simply can not be defended or sustained.
The GOP leadership, such as it is, won’t play the Ryan cards. They’ll play the losing hands. The elephants are kindly but they’re dumb.