In my debate analysis last night (which you can read here), I talked about who I thought were the winners and losers were in last night’s Republican debate. Truth be told, there were no winners. Not the candidates, not the pundits, not the viewers, nobody won. Why didn’t anyone win? Because all of the policies being pushed by these candidates are not sustainable in the general practice of government. I’m sure the policy ideas being offered by Michele Bachman really wind up the GOP base, but that’s all it’s going to do. For all practical purposes, you’re not going to find a majority of Americans who support the “light bulb freedom of choice act.” More broadly, why would you support freedom of choice on light bulbs, but not freedom of choice on anything else? And what about jobs?
Telling everyone that there ought to be a Constitutional amendment requiring an unachievable balanced budget isn’t good policy it’s good pandering. Touting a Constitutional ban on gay marriage isn’t championing the ideas of small government, it’s setting fire to the barn so you can save the cattle. Conservatives know (or should know by now) that items like English as the official language, flag burning, gay marriage, and balanced budgets without real deficit reduction are just red herrings designed to disguise the problem in the form of an answer looking for a problem as opposed to a problem addressing solution. What was really bizarre (and I think the polls will better point this out) is why Tim Pawlenty and Michele Bachman felt the need to attack each other over a cigarette tax. Seriously? That’s the best you can do?
This is a point in time in which it would be really helpful if we could have a serious conversation about deficit reduction, but saying that you won’t accept any tax increases even if it’s 10:1 spending cuts to tax increases is simply not credible. That may help you win in a Republican primary, but that’s a pledge that you shouldn’t make, not because it’s something that you don’t believe in, but because it’s something that’s not a sound governing strategy. If you don’t accept compromise at all and your only solution to things is by winning, you should prepare yourself for a lot of defeats because no one wins by beating their chest. They just embarrass themselves. Ezra Klein put it this way:
“The best policy in this debate wasn’t the policy most likely to work, or the policy most likely to pass. It was the most orthodox policy. The policy least sullied by compromise. A world in which the GOP will not agree to deficit reduction with a 10:1 split between spending cuts and tax increases is a world where entitlement reform can’t happen. It’s a world where the “supercommittee” fails and the trigger is pulled, and thus a world in which $1 out of every $2 in cuts comes from the Pentagon. It’s not a world that fits what many in the GOP consider ideal policy. But it is a world in which none in the GOP need to traverse the treacherous politics of compromise.”
The question should have been asked of the candidates “what would you support?” As in, would you accept anything that could muster more than 70 GOP votes? I think the answer to that question would have been something like:
- Look, we have a spending problem, not a revenue problem.
- The President has failed to lead.
- Why isn’t the President out talking about a plan instead of holding closed door meetings?
- When is the Senate going to come up with a budget?
- This isn’t going to create jobs, Mr. President.
- We can’t afford to give in to the President’s obsession with raising taxes.
- We can’t afford to raise taxes on our nation’s job creators and our nation’s small businesses.
James Fallows had this to say:
“Not sure which is worse: that she (Bachman) knows better and decided this was an applause line to push, or she really doesn’t know the first thing about the Congressional budgeting process. I bet most Americans also think that holding down the debt ceiling is a forward-looking budgetary step — ie, that it’s like resolving to spend less next month. But they’re still wrong. The real comparison is resolving not to pay a credit card bill when it shows up. For a national candidate not to understand this??? Seriously, this is like discovering that your doctor thinks that your trachea is attached to your spleen.”
The crux of these positions are pretty clear. They’re designed to tell us what they won’t accept, but relatively skimpy on what they actually would accept. It’s better to play defensive politics than offensive politics. That’s one reason that Democrats refused to do anything on entitlements. I think Republicans have a legitimate gripe when it comes to taxes in exchange for entitlements. The fact that Dems just wanted to use the Ryan budget as a punching bag rather than get a deficit reduction deal isn’t just bad politics, it’s bad leadership.
The President should have come out with Simpson-Bowles and said “this is my plan, created by my committee and this is what we’re going to do.” Then Republicans could attack a plan that addresses everything that they wanted to address and the President would come out of this looking like he was willing to make a serious good faith effort, but in the end was denied the victory not because of the merits of the disagreement, but because of his position within the United States government and that would have solidified public perception of him as a leader. Instead, Democrats decided to play politics with entitlements and Republicans decided to play politics with taxes and nothing got done.
This debate shouldn’t be going on anymore. We should have addressed this problem in a serious way, but because the politics were so messy, we avoided a situation where leadership was necessary and politics were more trouble than they are worth. In the end, we don’t need someone who will stick to their guns, we need someone who knows how to make a deal. The President didn’t look wonderful in the debate over deficit reduction, but Republicans looked worse. That’s a net gain for the President. It’s a small win, but it’s a win.
Now every time one of the GOP candidates comes out and talks about deficit reduction, the President can push him into a corner over just about everything that goes into real deficit reduction. The problem is that by taking this approach the President merely demonstrates that he understands what leadership looks like, not that he, himself is a good leader. By not getting anything done on this and pushing everything off onto a supercomittee, both sides look weak and everybody loses. The polls have illustrated this point and if this kind of behavior continues, I expect we’ll see it in voter turnout during the 2012 election. You’ll see low turnout and more net gains for Republicans in the Congress and that’s not a scenario that anyone in Democratic party politics should be rooting for.