the national interest

The GOP’s Missing Internal Debate

US President Barack Obama and Speaker of the House John Boehner (L) speak following a St. Patrick's Day Luncheon at the US Capitol in Washington, DC, March 20, 2012.

The coming showdowns of August seem to have finally alerted Republicans to the dangers of conservative apocalypticism. Conservatives like Tom Cole and Pete Wehner are warning the party away from shutting down the federal government or refusing to lift the debt ceiling. Their advice, framed in strikingly similar terms (Wehner’s headline: “The Suicide Caucus”; Cole calls it a “suicidal political tactic”), makes sense on its own terms. Shutting down the government because you hate Obamacare is not going to either stop Obamacare or make people hate Obama more, but create a high-profile event that will display the party’s anti-government pathologies. Republican suicide – don’t do it!

The intraparty debate over the shutdown tactic does expose a larger void, though. If not a shutdown, then what?

The debate on the right under Obama has largely concerned means, not ends. The extreme wing of the Republican Party wants to use its control of the House to force Obama to bend to its will by threat of inflicting economic and governing chaos. The pragmatic wing fears that this will backfire. It’s a debate about the practical limits of power of a party that controls just one chamber of Congress.

But what should the party’s strategy be? In arguing against the shutdown tactic, pragmatic conservatives implicitly support the Republican leadership strategy. That approach is to support the status quo and refuse to negotiate the budget with either Obama or Senate Democrats. Eric Cantor, in one of the few times he was pressed on this in a weekend interview with Chris Wallace, said he would favor replacing sequestration with cuts to entitlement programs. But Obama has insisted he will only agree to cutting Social or Medicare if Republicans agree to more revenue. Republicans absolutely refuse.

That debate is absolutely invisible among conservative intellectuals. Do they think zero no taxes, no matter what, is really the best conservative policy? Isn’t there some level of higher revenue they’d accept – in the form of lower tax deductions, not higher rates – in return for cuts to Social Security and Medicare? Obama proposed last winter a pretty generous budget compromise, one that would infuriate many liberals if actually accepted by the GOP.

But House Republicans didn’t bite. And I don’t understand why, because it’s not as if they have some more plausible way to enact cuts to Social Security and Medicare.

If it’s that particular deal they don’t like, what about something else? The administration has hinted for months and months it would go for a carbon tax (which is regressive, and Republicans might like it if they want to protect the rich from higher taxes, which they surely do). Obama is also enthusiastic about early childhood education, which maybe the administration would go for in place of some of its revenue demands. (I have zero inside knowledge of this; it’s merely my speculation.)

It seems like there ought to be some possible deal which 1) improves on the status quo, and 2) is acceptable to Obama. But that debate is completely invisible on the right. Conservatives have enthusiastically debated the distant future of their party – i.e., what to do if and when they regain the presidency. Most of that debate involves imaginary future political coalitions and abstract philosophical decisions.

But in the meantime, the party has to figure out how it will spend the next three years. The only debate conservatives are actually having about that is whether to blow everything up unless Obama surrenders to them.