It’s time Republicans play political hardball. If they do not, they will soon dangerously alienate large chunks of their conservative base. Negotiations have stalled. A fiscal showdown is looming. Congressional Republicans and Democrats are trying to pass a budget to fund the government for the current fiscal year. Two short-term appropriation extensions have been enacted. The latest one is set to expire April 8. Both sides are beginning to dig in their heels. If a budgetary agreement is not reached, the government will shut down.
The GOP leadership fears that the public will blame them - as it did in 1995, when the Gingrich Republicans forced a shutdown, helping to revive then-President Clinton’s sagging electoral fortunes. Republicans are rightly worried history may repeat itself.
The Democrats own a bad economy and several failing wars. The political wind is at the GOP’s back heading into 2012. Many Republicans are asking a simple question: Why risk everything over a budget fight when the Democrats are poised to be crushed in next year’s elections?
They argue that such a strategy is reckless and could pave the way for Mr. Obama’s re-election. Democrats are hoping to paint the GOP as a party of right-wing extremists who cannot be trusted with the reins of power. Hence, the likes of House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, are saying that forcing a shutdown will play into the liberals’ hands.
Instead, he is pursuing a strategy of incrementalism - push small spending cuts, hoping to make Democrats defend some of their unpopular pet projects, such as when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid recently warned that Nevada’s cowboy poetry festival risked being defunded. Establishment Republicans think they have found the winning formula: Force the White House and Democrats to accept minor spending reductions while keeping the government operating. Some recent polls seem to bear them out.
Yet good politics can also be bad morality. So far, the GOP has managed to get the administration to accept $10 billion in spending reductions. Republicans are now seeking to wring another $20 billion in cuts from congressional Democrats. This is what both sides are now quibbling over. It is fantasy masquerading as high drama; they are simply rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. For there is one dominant fact of American life, a fact that subsumes all others: We are going broke. And unless we address it immediately and decisively, the U.S. ship of state is going to sink under the weight of massive debt. No political strategizing - no matter how cunning or clever - can change this.
This year’s federal deficit alone is projected to be a record-breaking $1.65 trillion. The national debt has just passed $14 trillion and is approaching 100 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) - the point where economists say the debt level is so high and burdensome in proportion to GDP there is no return to fiscal solvency. In short, America is on the ruinous path of Greece, Ireland and Portugal.
The GOP was elected in 2010 to stop Mr. Obama’s fiscal carnage. They were not given a second chance to play amateur Machiavellians, positioning themselves politically while nibbling around the edges of an unsustainable nanny state. If the GOP cannot stand for deep spending cuts and real entitlement reform - in other words, pulling the nation back from the abyss - then what good are they?
America is at a watershed. It desperately needs bold, principled leadership - a fiscal Winston Churchill, someone who is willing to tell the country that real sacrifices must be made if the American experiment in self-government and liberty is to survive.
The difference between now and 1995 is simple and stark. We live in a different age. Amid a decade of peace and prosperity, a government shutdown struck voters as juvenile and senseless.
Today, however, it will serve to highlight the dire predicament the country faces. Shaving a billion here and a billion there is simply a drop in the proverbial bucket. It only makes Republicans complicit in America’s fiscal collapse. Tea Party activists, rank-and-file conservatives and independents will rightly conclude the GOP is not serious about rolling back the federal leviathan and runaway spending. They may bolt and form a third party in 2012, fatally wounding the Republicans.
Hence, if the budget crisis leads to a government shutdown, so be it. It will be Mr. Obama’s fault. He is the one who is bleeding the country white. A shutdown will unmask the destruction he is wreaking upon America.
Jeffrey T. Kuhner is a columnist at The Washington Times and president of the Edmund Burke Institute.