President Obama’s surprisingly forceful inaugural address Monday heralding a leftward shift in American politics was just the latest bit of bad news for a beleaguered Republican Party. In November, Republicans blew their chance to defeat him. Then they lost the showdown over the fiscal cliff. Then, on Wednesday, they backed down from their threat to force a debt default if Democrats did not accept deep spending cuts, meekly agreeing instead to suspend the debt limit until May. Until recently, Republicans had insisted that the debt limit was their strongest point of leverage over Obama.
Since the election, the GOP has been a foundering mess — angry, defiant, confused, less popular than ever, and lacking any evident plan to right the ship. One reason for this crisis is that Republicans from Mitt Romney on down took it as an article of faith that Americans would reject a second Obama term. Most have not yet come to terms with the fact that Obama won, and did so handily. In a speech to the Ripon Society on Wednesday, House Speaker John Boehner complained that Obama was determined to “annihilate” the Republican Party; but it would be closer to the truth to say that the party seems intent on annihilating itself.
The GOP’s problem is that it is a minority party that doesn’t stand for any larger idea than simply opposing Obama. That idea having been soundly rejected, the party lacks the strength to beat the president in the short term and lacks an organizing principle around which to build for the long term. The fact that Republicans continue to behave as if they had complete control of Washington, rather than just one house of Congress, means that they’re likely to continue suffering humiliating defeats in the budget battles soon to come.
In order to chart a path back from oblivion, Republicans need to accept their minority status and establish a realistic goal to guide their strategy, frame their actions, and offer something to voters beyond contempt for Obama. They should choose deficit reduction as that goal.
Most Republicans already talk in apocalyptic terms about the “debt crisis” and the need to balance the budget. But their policies don’t match their rhetoric, because it’s clear that their real priority isn’t bringing revenue into alignment with spending but simply cutting social programs. Paul Ryan’s budget, for instance, which is the blueprint for House Republicans, wouldn’t balance for nearly 30 years.
Just this week, Republican House leaders submitted to pressure from their right-wing members and announced they would pass a budget that balances within 10 years. But here again, they insist on doing this through spending cuts alone. At a breakfast with reporters, Ryan repeatedly ruled out new tax revenue, even if it comes through a revamp of the tax code, something Republicans have long pushed for.
Given the size of the deficit and the party’s desire to maintain (or expand) current levels of military spending, this will commit them to absurdly deep cuts in popular programs. There is zero chance such a plan would pass the Senate, much less get a presidential signature. And the GOP’s insistence on forcing a crisis when it doesn’t get its way guarantees the kind of showdowns they invariably lose.
A better approach would be to stick to the goal of deficit reduction but accept that revenue increases (likely in the form of capping or eliminating tax deductions) are going to have to be a part of the solution. Boehner and Republicans previously supported this idea, although they’ve since changed their minds. They’d do well to change them back. Reducing the deficit is entirely consistent with conservative principles. And Obama has signaled his willingness to go along, provided it is done reasonably. In an overlooked line from his inaugural address on Monday, he said: “We must make the hard choices to reduce the cost of health care and the size of our deficit.”
The various deals and concessions since the election, including the punt on the debt ceiling, have reordered but not removed the series of budget showdowns set for this spring. As they have in every fiscal debate so far, Republicans have taken an absolutist stance. But eventually they will be forced to compromise. If, in the interim, they embrace the goal of deficit reduction, that compromise will look less like outright capitulation and more like an accomplishment that might finally steer the party in a better direction.Joshua Green is national correspondent for Bloomberg Businessweek. Follow him on Twitter @JoshuaGreen.