Fred Barnes Advises Conservatives To Be Conservative On Budget Cuts

In the Wall Street Journal today, Fred Barnes has a piece cautioning Republicans in the House of Representatives not to abandon the current policy of nibbling off small pieces of the federal budget through passing two-and-three week extensions of the government. He says  it’s working, and it’s a course the GOP should continue rather than spoiling for a government shutdown that he says could yield unpredictable results.

The end zone is far away, however, and impatience won’t get Republicans there. Impatience is not a strategy. It may lead to a government shutdown with unknown results. To enact the sweeping cuts they desire, Republicans must hold the House and capture the Senate and White House in the 2012 election. Then they’ll control Washington. Now they don’t.

In the meantime, the incremental strategy is working. Republicans have passed two short-term measures to keep the government in operation since early March while slashing $10 billion in spending. At this rate, they would achieve the target of GOP congressional leaders of lopping off $61 billion from President Obama’s proposed budget in the final seven months of the 2011 fiscal year.

There’s every reason to believe the incremental strategy would continue to succeed. Democrats are flummoxed by it. They’d like to block more cuts, but they’ve been unable to explain why spending reductions of a few billion dollars at a clip are unacceptable. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid tried, only to embarrass himself by saying Nevada’s cowboy poetry festival might be jeopardized. Mr. Obama has prudently declined to wade in.

Barnes has a point, and after decades of ever-expanding federal expenditures even a $10 billion cut in real federal spending is certainly a move in the right direction.

But his advice – namely, not to take any chances until after the 2012 elections, in which the GOP will assumedly control the Senate and maybe even the White House – is in itself risky.

Because while Republicans will likely at least maintain their numbers in the House in the 2012 elections – redistricting alone should net them 15-20 seats next year and there isn’t any particular reason why Democrats would be able to recapture very many of the marginal districts their candidates were blown out of last fall – a big flip in the Senate will require the same kind of animated conservative electorate the 2010 elections delivered. We’re already seeing a major union pushback to the Tea Party movement – in Wisconsin, in Ohio, in Indiana and in New Jersey, among other places. Even here in Louisiana, where the Left is a laughingstock and there are almost no unions to speak of, we’ve still seen one demonstration after another over things like privatization, cuts to higher education funding, pension contributions and so forth.

Generally, the conduct of the left-wing goons taking part in the demonstrations in Wisconsin and elsewhere comes off as less attractive compared to the Tea Party events last year; it’s not yet know whether such a phenomenon will move the public at large one way or the other. One gets the sense that despite all the media’s demonization of Tea Partiers last year the more the public sees the signs depicting this Republican leader or that as Hitler or Mubarak and the more obnoxious public union employee protests make it onto YouTube, the better for Republicans in advance of the 2012 elections. On the other hand, the Left is still able to mobilize a coalition to win Senate races in enough states to perhaps hold that body next year, and while Obama isn’t a particularly popular president and has little policy upside with the American people it’s going to take a legitimate effort to beat him next year. It should not be taken for granted, as Barnes’ piece seems to suggest, that 2012 will be a continuation of 2010.

The point being, if John Boehner and his team in the House GOP leadership don’t act in a way the conservative base expects them to it’s entirely possible that the momentum currently carrying the Republicans could dissipate in the face of a resurgent union assault. Boehner’s group is getting an unmistakably clear message from the people who put him in the Speaker’s chair that minor squabbling on a few billion dollars here and there – which the war in Libya has all but wiped clean the positive results of – simply isn’t enough.

Barnes says that attacking things like Obamacare, Planned Parenthood and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, for which there are fairly sizable majorities in favor of de-funding or repealing, are a sure road to a shutdown. As such, it’s a smart idea, he says, to stay away from those fights…

One thing Republicans know for sure is how to cause a shutdown: Demand more than Democrats will ever agree to. So long as they control the Senate and White House, Democrats will reject massive cuts. Republicans also want to bar spending for Planned Parenthood, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and Mr. Obama’s health-care program. Attach any of these prohibitions to a spending measure and Democratic opposition is certain. Should Republicans insist, we’ll get a government shutdown.

This is a big gamble. While some Democrats are leery of the political reaction in the country at large, others see it as their best hope. Indeed it might discredit Republicans and boost Mr. Obama in the same way the shutdown in 1995 hurt Republicans and lifted President Bill Clinton out of the doldrums. It could alienate independent voters so critical to the Republican triumph in 2010.

This is classic Beltway thinking to a T, and over the last couple of weeks I have heard it from congressional staffer after congressional staffer on the GOP side. They’re frankly terrified over a shutdown because they’re brainwashed into believing the legacy media spin about the 1995 impasse.

And because of that fear, they’ve operated in an over-cautious manner which has allowed – amazingly – the President to completely skate on the budget issue. The American people want the budget balanced, and Obama is talking about high-speed rail and government-subsidized windows. Recent polling indicates the public is neither ignorant nor appreciative of the White House’s abdication of leadership on the most important issue of the day. But because of the two-week CR strategy and the avoidance of bringing this issue to the front burner it deserves to sit on, Obama has so far avoided the hot seat.

And worse, the leadership’s perceived disagreement with the folks who built them a majority last November is giving Senate Democrats the opportunity to sit on the sidelines and take shots at the Tea Party as the reason reasonable people can’t come to a deal. Harry Reid, for example, took to the floor of the Senate this morning and called on Boehner to ditch the Tea Party. Reid has $11 billion worth of cuts he’s proposed, but to offer them he wants a CR that funds the government for the rest of the fiscal year. Reid and his allies are doing their best to craft their proposal, which cuts the deficit by 0.7 percent, as the “reasonable” one.

But this might be the worst of it. The 1995 shutdown was anything but the political disaster Barnes and other establishment types make it out to be, and as such the fear which is driving the Republican position isn’t even founded in historical fact.

Quick question, which almost nobody on Capitol Hill I talked to in the last couple of weeks had the right answer for: how many House seats did the Republicans lose in the 1996 elections as a result of the shutdown?

Answer: eight. Not exactly a heavy price. And in the Senate, the Republicans actually picked up a pair of seats.

Sure, Clinton got re-elected that year. Look who ran against him. Until John McCain came along, you simply couldn’t find a more moribund, unexciting, country-club Republican candidate than Bob Dole in 1996. In fact, Dole was even less appealing as a candidate than McCain despite the fact the campaign McCain ran might well have been worse.

In short, the shutdown had a minimal effect. And Obama is no Clinton. What’s more, 2012 won’t be 1996; we’re not on a holiday from history like we were back then, and while we were subsequently able to balance the budget in the latter part of that decade without a draconian round of budget-cutting (a growing economy did the trick) that’s not going to happen this time and the public knows it. So what we’re talking about here is apples and oranges.

Which comes back to Barnes’ strategy.

He’s right that slow progress is progress. And a continued program of three-week CR after three-week CR which spits out small cuts with every round is better than a major defeat.

But while a government shutdown is a gamble, it’s only a bad one if you don’t prepare it properly. And focusing on small-stakes battles with continued short-term fixes kicking this can along isn’t good preparation for the broad strokes needed to win the negotiation the shutdown might bring into being.

Obama and the Democrats in the Senate have to be forced to put a real proposal on the table of their own. They’ve done nothing of the sort so far. Why isn’t that fact the one being discussed where the budget issue is concerned? Instead, their response to a GOP proposal of $61 billion in cuts – derided as it was as piddling by critics not just on the right – was, essentially, silence. They offered 1/10th the GOP’s budget reductions; that’s not a serious proposal amid a $1.6 trillion deficit. Reid’s $11 billion is hardly any better; they’re still not even to 20 percent of the tiny cuts the Republicans proposed.

The only way to get to the balanced budget the public demands, short of rapid economic growth that will only come from a large-scale repudiation of Obama’s policies on energy, labor, communications, manufacturing, housing, finance and a host of other industries and clearly won’t be coming until after a repudiation of Obama at the polls, is to savage the non-defense discretionary budget, apply some intelligent trimming to the Defense Department and begin getting a handle on the growth of – if not actually cutting – Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. The good news is that the first part of that equation will help alleviate some of what is preventing economic growth.

Defense and entitlements are extremely heavy burdens to take on, but non-defense discretionary spending speaks to the main issues the Tea Party was founded on – specifically the size and scope of the federal government. That’s where the low-hanging fruit is, and furthermore that’s where the widespread public consensus for cuts can be found.

So while Barnes is afraid of risking a government shutdown over Planned Parenthood and NPR and Obamacare, he has it wrong. Those need to be approached as foregone conclusions by the GOP. Boehner and his people should be saying – loudly – that they simply can’t believe the Democrats would shut the government down over Planned Parenthood. After all, if the government shuts down Planned Parenthood doesn’t get any more money; it’s getting de-funded either way. In every interview the GOP leadership and the members of its caucus ought to be saying, “Forget about Planned Parenthood. That’s over. There’s no support for continuing to throw good money after bad where they’re concerned.” Ditto for CPB and Obamacare. The first two don’t amount to much money, but so what? They’re emblematic of how tax dollars are being spent on left-wing special interest groups when we have no more tax dollars to spend, and as such they’re good hills to die on.

The Republicans ought to be willing to pass a few billion dollars in cuts to obviously wasteful Defense Department programs; it’s very possible to restructure the Pentagon bureaucracy so as to produce savings in the 10 or 11 figure range. Don’t be afraid to do it, though it would be better politically to force the Left to offer them up.

And further, a shutdown doesn’t have to be a shutdown. Let an impasse force the government into hibernation and then offer a series of short-term CR’s which fund specific parts of the government at the levels the GOP wants. Doing so will force Reid and Obama to either agree to them or else take responsibility for the shutdown. It’s a choice between some government and no government – or even better, federal government or state government since many of the federal agencies which will be mothballed in the midst of a shutdown have duplicates at the state level.

And the public will thus largely notice the shutdown only from watching the news and seeing federal employees from agencies most of us dislike and who make more money than we do in the streets screaming about how awful the Republicans are. This isn’t by any means some disastrous circumstance the Republican Party ought to fear.

Sure, it’s better not to have to shut the government down – but Barnes and others among the Beltway GOP establishment seem to think a shutdown will kill the GOP. That’s perhaps an overly conservative approach to fiscal conservatism, and it’s not what the times call for.



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