Reversal of Fortune

The Incompetent Party

What if today’s Republicans just aren’t very good at politics? asks Michael Tomasky.

Bill Boch/Getty

Over the weekend, I wrote about how Barack Obama can win the upcoming debt-ceiling fight. I left out one important element of a winning strategy, which I’ll get to further down. But the main point of the piece, which I want to reinforce today, is to flip the current conventional wisdom on its head. The c.w. says the Republicans hold the cards here. But they don’t. And some of them are throwing whatever cards they do have on the bonfire with a lot of loose talk that weakens what I think is their already weak position. What all this adds up to is the following revolutionary proposition, which I invite you to consider: it may be that the Republicans just aren’t very good at politics anymore.

In the years of my adulthood—the years, that is, since the Reagan ascendance—it has generally been assumed by the elite media and other arms of the country-running establishment that the Republicans knew what they were doing. Yeah, they may have been extreme or obstreperous or this or that, but they were good. Newt Gingrich was whip smart. Karl Rove was an out-and-out genius. Tom DeLay, you didn’t mess with. Why I even remember when Bill Frist was limned as some kind of great sage. And so on. On the Democratic side, meanwhile, Bill Clinton often won such plaudits, but for a long, long time, he was about the only one.

I have some highfalutin theories about why this is so, but let’s dispense with those and just seek an Occam’s Razor kind of explanation. Quite simply, for a long time, Republicans won. And even when they didn’t win, they certainly dominated the discourse. So they just looked like the team that knew how to play the game.

That was true for a generation anyway, and during that time, the media learned the habit of assuming that, whatever the issue, the Republicans were going to win; they were surely in possession of some secret, devious master plan of genius that they were just waiting for the exact right moment (because needless to say, under this theory, even their timing was above reproach) to spring on the unsuspecting Democrats, who would melt like cheese at the sight of it.

I dramatize a bit, but it’s basically true. That default view of Republican prowess became deeply lodged in the collective mind of the elite, and things once lodged are awfully difficult to dislodge. Which means that these days, the Republicans are still benefiting from some residual and vestigial positive assumptions about their acumen that they really don’t deserve.

They botched the fiscal-cliff talks in any number of ways. Obviously, John Boehner’s Plan B fiasco was the most visible manifestation, but there were more. New Year’s Day—Eric Cantor splitting from Boehner; first there’s no vote; then there is a vote—was absolute mayhem. And, this is crucial, Boehner broke the Hastert Rule and permitted the cliff deal to pass with a minority of Republicans. It is true that Mitch McConnell pushed Obama’s supposedly firm $250,000 amount on taxes up to $450,000, and that was a point in his favor. But the bottom line is that the Republicans emerged from New Year’s Day angry and divided—and defeated.

And now—because old habits are hard to dislodge—there appears to be an assumption afoot that they will channel this anger into a crushing win over Obama come round two in March. But I see them making mistakes again. McConnell insists that revenues are off the table. But that’s a position that only the GOP base supports, and the more he says it, the more unreasonable Republicans are going to look. Jon Cornyn says a partial government shutdown may be necessary. Other Republicans will follow him down that road, surely, while administration officials will say, no, we don’t want a shutdown of any kind. So if one happens, the side that’s been talking it up is pretty obviously the side that’s going to get the ketchup on its face. The Tea Party people are making noises about primaries against the senators and House members who voted for the cliff deal. Let that drumbeat continue; to your average American, it will sound insane, and it will push them into Obama’s corner even more than they are now.

So where others see Republicans talking tough and drawing lines in the sand, I see them emitting a bunch of gas that’s going to come back and choke them later on. And remember, they folded on Jan. 1 under the “pressure” of taking the country over the fiscal cliff, a mostly fictional and chimerical precipice where the real-world consequences of missing the deadline, after a couple of bad days on Wall Street, wouldn’t have been that terrible. If they folded under those conditions, what makes us think they wouldn’t fold when they really and truly are on the cusp of destroying the world’s economy and absorbing the blame for it?

Now, the one thing Obama has to do here is put forward—soon—a credible cuts-and-revenue plan. He should propose defense cuts, but he will also have to offer some domestic cuts his base won’t like. On entitlements, he should not go very far, I don’t think, in his opening bid—after all, majorities don’t want deep entitlement cuts, and it’s important he retain popular support. On revenues, he lowers the corporate rate but closes some large corporate loopholes to engage in some Bowles-Simpson–esque “base broadening.” The people will support his plan. They’ll oppose the GOP plan. It’s about that simple.

And at the end of the day, the Republicans won’t take the country into default. A number of them will be willing to, maybe even a majority. But they won’t have either the numbers or the stones, or both, to do it. If Boehner was willing to break the Hastert Rule once, he’ll break it again, especially when the stakes for the country are much higher.

Media fondness for “Dems in disarray” stories has been a running joke among liberals for 15 years, and more recently the phrase has become an ironic hashtag. But the Dems these days are pretty arrayed. It’s the other party that’s a mess. Perception will catch up to reality, and perhaps soon.