The Wall Street Journal’s lead editorial today (July 13) argues the debate over raising the debt-limit ceiling isn’t the best occasion for Republicans to try drawing a line in the sand against higher taxes, or for entitlement reform or a balanced budget amendment. With Democrats in control of the White House and the Senate, they simply have “more cards to play” than Republicans in the House, so the odds of getting these objectives in return for raising the debt ceiling are small.
The WSJ’s editors tentatively endorse Sen. McConnell’s proposal instead, allowing Obama to raise the debt ceiling without Republican votes, so as to make Obama “own” the recession and record of profligate spending and keep the Republicans’ powder dry for the debate over the 2012 budget and then the 2012 elections.
This is probably the most complete phrasing or framing of what I recall Grover Norquist telling me about a year ago, that Republicans will be tempted repeatedly between then (2010) and 2012 to fall on their own swords to achieve what we all agree are major objectives – no tax increases, entitlement reform, balanced budgets, etc. But without a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate and a Republican in the White House, legislation to achieve these ends won’t pass. By introducing and voting for such legislation anyway, Republicans repeatedly go out on a limb for unpopular spending cuts and reforms, and let the Democrats cut off the limb (or vote for popular Republican initiatives knowing they won’t pass) just in time for each election cycle, therefore squandering the opportunity for Republicans to win back the Senate and the White House.
The right strategy, I recall Grover saying at the time and now the WSJ seems to be echoing, is for Republicans to “do nothing,” which Grover said would be “very hard to do.” Is this good advice?
To me, “doing nothing” is an ugly marriage of two strategies I loathe, the “worse is better” trope that libertarians are sometimes lured into … “if things get bad enough, people will wake up and vote for our guys” … and “the other guys are so bad we don’t have to do anything to win elections” trope that I’ve watched Illinois Republicans fall into year after year.
“Worse is better” hasn’t worked very well during the 31 years I’ve been a member of the Libertarian Party, but maybe it’s because some of us are working so hard to ensure things don’t get bad enough. And “we don’t have to do anything” has given Democrats in Illinois both houses, the governor’s mansion, and monopoly control of Chicago, a culture of political and intellectual corruption that infects both parties and much of the state’s business community, a dispirited and disorganized Republican Party, and a non-existent Libertarian Party.
If there is a strategic logic to Grover’s observation and now the WSJ’s advice to Republicans, and I concede that there is, then it must be carefully balanced against the cost in terms of losing the trust and support of conservatives, libertarians, and Tea Party activists. Not being a politician, and not being in Washington DC, I can’t make that call.
If Republicans choose to do nothing on the debt ceiling, then I hope they make up for it by being loud and strong in the 2012 budget debate and field candidates in 2012 who make iron-clad promises to adopt the libertarian-conservative agenda if given the Senate and White House in 2012. (But shame on us for believing politicians who make “iron-clad promises.”)
Finally, the WSJ’s advice to bloggers and Tea Party spokespersons is to “think before they shout.” I agree with that. Picking battles so as to be around to win future rounds of the fight is a necessary part of politics. It separates politics from the public policy research and advocacy that think tanks do. To the extent that free-market groups such as The Heartland Institute comment on individual politicians at all, they should focus their fire on Democrats and RINOs who block adoption of our ideas, not allies trying to act strategically.