The GOP’s Cynical Slog Strategy

Obama needs to break the cycle of congressional deadlines, says Michael Tomasky.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP

Whatever happens as this week ends, it establishes a pattern you’d better get used to. In legislative terms, this year is going to consist pretty entirely of one deadline following another in this long national slog. It’s going to happen this way, yes, because the two sides can’t agree on the big questions. But at bottom it’s going to happen because the Republicans are perfectly happy to let it happen this way. Stalemate and the appearance of incompetence suit them. They don’t even on some level really want a deal, even one that’s more than half on their terms. And you know what? Sadly, they’re probably right to think all this. One of these days, sometime this year, Barack Obama is going to have to rip the curtain open and expose their strategy for what it is and force the Great Showdown.

Here’s where we are. We have the March 1 sequester deadline, which we’re probably going to pass. Next up comes March 28, when the agencies of government run out of money and Congress has to pass new continuing resolutions to fund them. Then, by April 15, when most Americans think about their tax deadline, Congress has to pass a budget resolution, or they don’t get their paychecks. Something tells us they’ll find a way to meet that one, but with some of these people, who knows? Then, on or about May 19, we’ll hit the debt ceiling again, and it will need to be raised.

Get the idea? The legislative branch can invent deadline after deadline after deadline. And with each new one that is hit, two things happen. One, the public gets more and more disgusted with the appearance of incompetence. And two, and somewhat though not completely at odds with this, the public pays a little less attention each time. We’re already seeing in polls that people are paying less attention to the sequester than they did to the fiscal cliff, and this seems likely to continue.

All this will hurt Republicans. They know this. But as long as it hurts Obama too, they don’t care. Bear in mind here the words of Mike Lofgren, the former GOP congressional staffer who left his party in disgust in 2011. At the time, he wrote a big Goodbye to All That piece (from which I quoted), where he said the following: “A couple of years ago, a Republican committee staff director told me candidly (and proudly) what the method was to all this obstruction and disruption. Should Republicans succeed in obstructing the Senate from doing its job, it would further lower Congress’s generic favorability rating among the American people. By sabotaging the reputation of an institution of government, the party that is programmatically against government would come out the relative winner.”

Lofgren was writing of the Senate, but the same thinking applies to the House as well. This is how many Republican legislators size this up. They’re thinking of the next two elections down the road, and they think the following with regard to each. We’re probably safe for 2014, they think, because the House districts are drawn in such a way that almost all of our people are in pretty safe districts, and because Democratic constituencies historically don’t turn out in big numbers in by-elections; as for the Senate, the numbers favor us gaining a couple of seats, and with luck, who knows.

Then we continue the stalemate and start thinking about 2016. As long as we can gum up the works, make it look like Washington can’t do anything, deny Obama any sort of breakthrough victory, then we can head into ’16 in a strong position. We can say the country needs new leadership, the Democrats weren’t able to govern. It’s the same old story, like how George W. Bush ran by blaming Bill Clinton for failing to unite the country, after the Republicans had spent eight years making sure that Clinton couldn’t possibly unite the country.

In sum, this is going to go on indefinitely. It suits the long-term GOP strategy to take some hits as long as Obama is taking them too. So the longer-term question is how Obama can break this cycle.

One of these days, Obama needs to force a showdown that breaks the GOP’s back and obliges Republicans to accept revenue as a substantial portion of deficit reduction. The offer Obama has on the table right now provides for $1.8 billion more in deficit reduction, just about $600 billion of which comes via revenue. It includes a chained CPI for Social Security—that is, a major entitlement concession. But the Republicans won’t negotiate.

The White House has played a kind of hardball, no question about that. And the vast majority of people support Obama. But the president hasn’t managed to break through the he-said, he-said noise. I have no brilliant ideas for how he can do this. But at some point, one of these deadlines is going to present him with an opportunity to say: Enough. The games end right here. Remember, before his reelection, when he guessed that in his second term the GOP “fever” might break? Well, he’s going to have to break it.