What should congressional Republicans’ policy objectives be for the next two years regarding federal deficits and prosperity? Two very different strategies are being considered by authentic conservatives: 1) Attempt to govern from their majority in the House and try to start the process of reducing the costs of entitlements - most conspicuously, Social Security and Medicare - as a path back to prosperity and good jobs or 2) recognize that the GOP cannot govern without holding the White House and that therefore they should not touch entitlements but merely tinker with discretionary spending and frame the issues for 2012, when they may win the presidency and Senate as well as hold the majority in the House.
I believe we should follow the first option. The second strategy was championed by, among others, the Wall Street Journal (the esteemed wheelhouse of modern journalistic conservatism) in a Jan. 4 editorial headlined “The GOP Opportunity: The main Republican task will be framing the issues for 2012.”
The editorial argued, “Republicans did not run in 2010 to be national accountants. … Thanks to the failure of the Obama-Pelosi spending stimulus, the voters are once again listening to Republicans on the economy. They should not cede that ground back by turning into mere deficit scolds. …Republicans can’t govern from the House. What they can do is stake out a GOP agenda.”
Undergirding this issue-framing-only strategy is the belief that in 1995, Newt Gingrich and his new GOP majority failed to govern from the House and lost the public-relations battle by “shutting down the government” in its effort to advance deficit reduction.
As Mr. Gingrich’s press secretary from 1990 to 1997, I was in the middle of that fight. The first argument - that one cannot govern from the House - is demonstrably false. The second argument was true in 1995-96 but need not be true in 2011-12.
The GOP in 1995 had three major policy objectives: 1) To balance the budget in seven years, 2) to reform welfare and 3) to pass our Contract With America 10-point plan. President Clinton opposed all three. In fact, with Mr. Clinton eventually going along, we balanced the budget ahead of schedule, Mr. Clinton signed our welfare reform after first vetoing it twice, and about two-thirds of the contract was enacted into law and signed by Mr. Clinton. I would call that governing from the House. The GOP continued to hold its majority in the House for another decade. Then, after Bob Dole lost to Mr. Clinton in 1996, the GOP took the White House in 2000 and 2004.
It is true that we lost the image war when the government was shut down in 1995-96. But let me explain why the confrontation arose - and, most important, why we need not lose such a battle now, if it should arise again.
The House of Representatives has only two institutional tools to use when in policy conflict with the executive branch: oversight hearings to expose the facts to the public and the power of the purse. Any president can ride roughshod over a House majority unless the House threatens to withhold appropriated funds from disputed programs.
What the GOP House (and Senate) did in 1995 was to pass very short-term funding bills for just a few days while we continued to debate the president regarding the larger issue of moving toward a balanced budget. When Mr. Clinton refused to sign the bills, the government - except for essential services - shut down.
We lost that battle for three reasons: 1) because the shutdown was falsely, but effectively, framed in the public mind as motivated by the personal pique of the speaker and the desire of the GOP to “cut Medicare in order to give tax cuts to the rich,” 2) the issue of deficit spending and public debt was of much less concern to the public than it is now and 3) we were not able to deliver our interpretation of the issues directly to even our own supporters.
Back in 1995, there was no Fox News, there was no broadly used Internet and conservative talk radio was not nearly as powerful as it is today.
I had to try to get our message to the public through the filter of the mainstream media (the New York Times, The Washington Post, CBS, NBC, ABC, etc.) at a time when they were, in fact, mainstream. They were in no mood to fairly represent the facts, and we got shellacked.
Today, we are in the aftermath of an election that was largely about deficit spending, Obamacare and the trillions of dollars most GOP voters correctly think will get us further in debt. So not only is the deficit issue far more powerfully motivating than it was in 1995, but if the GOP fails even to try seriously to reduce the deficit, which means addressing, among other issues, Medicare and Social Security, it is likely to pay harshly in the next election for such inaction.
But equally important, with the massive alternative media, the GOP can effectively frame the issues as necessary for our future prosperity and the creation of millions of new jobs - without having our message filtered out by the once-mighty liberal media.