- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 5, 2006

The second of three excerpts from the book “Winning Right: Campaign Politics And Conservative Policies.”

In the fall of 1995, House Republicans and the Clinton administration had the now infamous Federal Budget Showdown, resulting in the now even more infamous government shutdown.

It’s a classic example of winning a battle but losing a war.

The spring of 1995 was a heady time for House Republicans, after having gained control for the first time in forty years and moving the Contract with America with efficiency greater than anyone could have hoped or expected. But threaded throughout votes on welfare reform and tort reform and other Contract legislation was a growing battle over the budget.

The House passed a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced budget, but it fell short of passage in the Senate when Republican [Sen.] Bob Packwood of Oregon joined six Democrats in switching their past positions in favor of the amendment to vote against it.

Despite this defeat, Gingrich, virtually unilaterally, declared that Republicans would balance the budget anyway. Not only that, he said we would do so in seven years.

There had been a heated internal debate about making such a promise, and I was in the House press gallery with Gingrich when he made the policy pronouncement. I thought he’d misspoken, and rushed out to call Kasich to come over and clear up any confusion.

Kasich joined Gingrich at the podium in the gallery and said he’d heard the talk about balancing the budget and agreed that that was the goal, but wanted to be clear that the committee was not drafting a seven- year timeframe.

But Gingrich hadn’t misspoken, he was driving policy through the press. He had determined that unless there was actually a “zero” at the end of the process, the public would not accept the pain of entitlement cuts (or reductions in the rate of growth, as we disciplined ourselves to say). Right there in the House press gallery, he committed the conference to the goal, and Kasich along with him.

His theory proved correct about the magic of the zero. The political pain of deficit reduction had for decades proven unbearable, but it had been thirty years since the country had actually had a balanced budget. Americans would be willing to accept cuts, however, if at the end of the process there was actually a balanced budget.

This had the effect of changing the political dynamic entirely, and by April, Clinton himself had acquiesced to producing a balanced budget. We were no longer debating if the budget would be balanced, but how.

That shifted the debate yet again, and Clinton began to regain his political footing after being off- balance since the November elections. We were winning so long as we were for a balanced budget and he wasn’t, but once he claimed the same goal but through different means, we began to lose the PR war because we put too much of our focus on process.

Clinton’s revised budget was deemed to be in balance by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), an arm of the White House, and it had clearly engaged in some good ol’-fashioned blue smoke and mirrors — accounting gimmicks and optimistic economic assumptions — to achieve balance. In addition, it didn’t achieve balance until year ten, whereas our budget balanced in seven years as calculated by the Congressional Budget Office, which we considered much more objective and reliable than the OMB.

Having browbeaten Clinton into agreeing to balance the budget, we decided to browbeat him further to balance it on our terms. Thus was born the great rallying cry, “CBO and 7!” We poured all of our energy and messaging into who should count the beans and for how long.

Meanwhile, over at the White House, they settled on a different rhetorical formula: M2E2-for Medicare, Medicaid, Education, and the Environment. They emoted over health care for the elderly and the poor, children in failing schools, and the need for clean air and water, while we affixed our green eyeshades tightly to our foreheads and explained baseline budgets and revenue projections versus reductions in the rate of increase and the need for the expenditure column to equal the revenue column.

We sounded cold and technocratic. They sounded warm and compassionate. They were speaking English, and we were talking math.

When communicating with voters, English beats math. Clinton went on to rehabilitate himself and routed Bob Dole in 1996, rather than being the one-term president Armey had once told him to his face he would be.

Ever since then, I have always taken care to make sure Republican officials add the “because clause.” “We need to cut taxes, BECAUSE tax relief will spur investment that will create jobs.” “We need to reform Medicare, BECAUSE we can provide health care more affordably while saving the program for future generations.?”The “because clause” helps make sure your candidate is talking about people, not numbers.

Ed Gillespie, former chairman of the Republican National Committee, is founder and co-chairman of Quinn Gillespie & Associates.

Part III

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