Politics: Don't be so sure Republicans are ready to win a debate on spending cuts
Published by: Dan Calabrese on Friday January 4th, 2013
By DAN CALABRESE - They don't really believe the American people are on their side.
I'm reading a lot of hopeful commentary from conservatives today to the effect that, with tax increases now out of the way, the debate shifts to more favorable territory for Republicans because the public wants spending cuts. This, we're told, puts the GOP in a strong position to demand cuts as a condition for another debt ceiling increase, which is going to be needed within weeks.
Too, because John Boehner faced a lot of dissention within conservative ranks over the fiscal cliff deal, we might expect him to stiffen his spine a little bit the next time he comes up against Obama on fiscal issues.
Yeah, the public says we need to cut spending, and all you have to do is look at the nation's balance sheet to see that there's no way around it. The public seems to understand that no tax increase is going to bring us anywhere close to balancing the budget, and certainly not the one just passed, which won't even trim $100 billion off a $1.2 trillion deficit.
In theory, the case for spending cuts is an easy one for Republicans to make. The problem is that these debates don't happen in theory. They happen in real life, and Republicans don't wage them very well because they are not prepared for the way Democrats fight. They also often lack the courage of their own alleged convictions.
As soon as you start talking about cutting spending, the first thing Democrats will do is hand the media a narrative about spending priorities they can paint as essential to the American way of life. How the hell do you think we ended up talking about Big Bird during the presidential campaign? Mitt Romney made a very reasonable point that while there is nothing wrong with Big Bird, his survival cannot be a spending priority of a federal government running more than $1 trillion worth of red ink every year. Anyone with any business sense would have to agree.
But the narrative that gets created is: Republicans hate children's television! Or: Republicans are blaming Big Bird for the deficit! Of course, that wasn't true at all. Romney was merely pointing out that of course you're going to run a deficit if you can't say no to things that might be nice but are not essential. It didn't matter what example he used. Democrats would have demagogued it just the same, and the media would have spit out their talking points just the same.
Every time we have a debate about spending cuts, Republicans get caught completely unprepared for this line of argument. Whether it's seniors eating dog food or poor people dying in the street, Democrats create a narrative in which disaster befalls America's most virtuous and helpless people because their only hope is federal spending, and Republicans are going to meanly take it away from them.
This is the point where Republicans should argue:
1. An awful lot of people who benefit from federal spending can and should go get the means of their subsistence elsewhere, and if it means they have to face a challenge, then they have to.
2. No constituency is so sacrosanct that they shouldn't be asked to adjust to a change if it's necessary to preserve the nation's fiscal integrity. And yes, that includes seniors. Republicans are terrified of what will happen if they actually say this, but defined contribution systems are far more sustainable than defined benefit systems. Democrats insist that any change in the current system of guaranteed benefits is a beyond-the-pale betrayal of seniors. But the fact is that there's no way to make entitlement programs sustainable if that is not changed. Anyone who can do basic math can understand this, but Republicans are convinced they will be destroyed politically if they come out and say it.
3. Yes, there are specific things that need to be cut from the budget, and they should be named, and the cuts should be defended. Some do almost nothing worthwhile for the nation. Others we just have to accept doing without because we can't afford them and that's life. Republicans are usually afraid to name specific cuts because they know Democrats will respond with sob stories about what will happen when these items are eliminated. That means Republicans always allow Democrats to set the terms of debate, and that's why Republicans lose. If you really believe we shouldn't spend this money, why are you so afraid to defend that belief?
I think much of Republicans' skittishness stems from the fact that they know the media are aligned with the other side. They figure they can't possibly win the debate because the media will carry the Democrats' water and influence public opinion far too powerfully for Republicans to overcome. It's true that the media represent a problem, but people who are serious about achieving goals find ways to overcome problems. You don't just keep showing up on Sunday shows saying the same stuff over and over again and hoping your coverage will somehow improve. You need to find better ways to make your case to the people.
With the power these days of social media and other new communication technology, this really shouldn't be hard. But creatures of Washington don't seem to understand that you're not necessarily losing the debate even if you're getting lambasted in Time, Newsweek, the Washington Post and the New York Times. That's why Republicans can talk in the abstract about out-of-control spending, but can never seem to get the public behind them for actually addressing it.
I think it all comes down to this: Democrats and their media allies treat the American people like children who cannot be made to understand that you can't have everything you want. The only way for Republicans to successfully counter this approach is to treat the American people like adults who understand that sometimes no is the right answer. I think the American people are more adult than either party gives them credit for, and can be brought along to accept this reality.
But that's not going to happen if the only party that really believes in spending discipline is afraid to try it. And I've never seen evidence that Republicans are really prepared to put their alleged beliefs into action and defend what they're doing, which is why I'm not at all confident they're going to prevail in the upcoming debt ceiling showdown. They know what they believe, but they aren't confident the American people are on their side, and they aren't at all confident they can persuade them.
Sounds to me like a recipe for more Republican humiliation.