David Frum

12.13.12

Wanna Beat Obama? Here's How

This is the second part of a reply to the Washington Post's Marc Thiessen. Read part one here.

Now to the more personal answer to Thiessen.

As a matter of fact, I don't propose that Republicans "surrender" to the president's agenda. For four years, I've been offering suggestions about how to oppose that agenda - but in a way likely to succeed, not certain to fail. Oftentimes, I feel like the Dutch army officer I met in Afghanistan in 2008. He said the hardest part of his job was teaching Afghan soldiers that it was not cowardly to yield ground to gain improved fields of fire. "They fight bravely," he said, "but not well."

I've offered my advice often and at length, but I'll seize this opportunity to try to put everything in one place.

Republicans face two challenges in the fiscal negotiations that will occupy much of the Obama second term, one strategic and tactical.

The strategic challenge is the need to rebalance their voting base. Jonathan Chait posted yesterday a mocking little essay that contends Republicans cannot offer a coherent budget plan because they don't know what the federal government spends its money on. The true problem is even more vexing. Republicans find it difficult to produce budget plans because we (or at least our leaders) do know how the federal government spends its money: on our voters. For all the angry talk-radio talk about Obama's "gimme-dat" coalition, the awkward fact is that it's the GOP that commands the support of America's top "takers" : the older, the rural, the Southern. If you want to close the budget gap, you won't get very far by squeezing young black single mothers - not compared to what you'll find in the defense budget, or in Medicare, or in Social Security, or in the farm budget, etc. etc. etc. Junk facts like the Heritage Foundation's claim that we spend $1 trillion a year on "welfare" are intended to obscure this truth. (The biggest chunk of that $1 trillion is Medicaid spending, and the biggest and fastest-growing program in Medicaid is nursing-home care.)

It's not easy for the party that represents the biggest beneficiaries of government spending to formulate plans to reduce government spending. If the GOP is to continue as the party of limited government (as I'd wish), it's going to have to find ways to rebase itself more on the votes of suburbans professionals of all races and both sexes, and less on the votes of retirees. To act more like Reagan's party of the 1980s, its vote will have to look more like Reagan's vote.

But that's for the long term.

Here's the tactical play.

1) Don't panic! The American fiscal situation is a large and gathering long-term problem, but it's not an immediate crisis. Interest rates remain extremely low. More to the point, the deficit is shrinking at the fastest rate since the end of World War II. If Republicans work themselves into excess and premature deficit-panic, they'll make serious political and policy mistakes. Thiessen's column is a perfect example of what happens when emotion overwhelms judgment.

2) Know your own strength. A majority in the House of Representatives is a powerful asset - if aligned with public opinion. If not, a president can roll right over that majority, as Ronald Reagan rolled over House Democrats in 1981 and Bill Clinton rolled over House Republicans in 1996. Thiessen's suggestion that Republicans use illegitimate methods in an effort to secure unpopular goals is an invitation for yet another presidential roll-over.

3) Choose priorities. If you don't know what you want, it's very hard to get it. If you have eight priorities, you have no priorities. If you won't offer concessions of your own, then you cannot negotiate. Marc Thiessen wants Republicans to demand their kind of tax reform plus their budget plus their version of entitlement reform - the whole shebang. It's the Aesop's fable of the boy who grabbed too large a handful of nuts from a narrow jar: by reaching for too much, he gained nothing.

4) Don't buy what the other guy is willing to give for free. President Obama is at least as eager to constrain Medicare spending as Republicans, possibly even more so. (That's why congressional Republicans could get to the president's left on Medicare cuts in the summer of 2010, and why Mitt Romney could do it again in the campaign of 2012.) There are important differences between the parties on Medicare reform: Republicans are more eager to protect healthcare providers and current retirees; Democrats are more eager to protect poorer seniors and future retirees. But there's much more common ground on Medicare than there is on, say, taxes. That suggests to me that Republicans should be using their (limited) clout to try to hold some line on the top tax rate rather than entitlement reforms that are probably coming anyway.

5) If you're heading to the bazaar, bring something to trade. Thiessen's recommended negotiating offer is: "Mr. President, give us what we want or we'll blow up the government. In return for your concessions, we'll … refrain from blowing up the government." Such an approach does not invite negotiation. It invites the president to rouse the country against an extremist GOP that refuses to abide the election returns. Probable outcome, see point 2 directly above. Instead, the GOP needs an offer: something Democrats want even more than they want to raise taxes on high earners. The carbon tax is one such possibility. If you don't like that, think of something else.

6) Remember: politics is a long game. As much as anything else, Republicans and Democrats are competing at any given moment to define their identities in the public mind. When a party does or says extreme and irresponsible things, that party builds itself an image as dangerous and untrustworthy. Republicans gained just such an image between 2009 and 2012, and they paid a price for it on voting day. Now is the time to begin the correction process. The last thing that's needed is advice to replicate again the blood-curdling methods that failed so signally in the last political cycle.