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The Ghost of Dick Darman and the Congressional GOP

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The battle over the budget and the need to cut spending, quickly and deeply, has not gone well for the GOP in the early weeks of the new Congress. Lots of people are looking back to the Clinton-Gingrich showdown as a template for what is unfolding, but in fact this feels like the disaster of 1990, when Dick Darman talked George H.W. Bush into the end of his presidency and the collapse of faith in the GOP as a party that could be trusted. That moment led to the rise of Perot and the election of Clinton. And it all came about because the GOP blinked at the crucial moment because Beltway insiders refused –absolutely refused– to trust the voters to understand what needed to be done.

The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza reviews a bit of what was said on the Sunday shows by GOP Senate Leader McConnell and Speaker John Boehner about the looming showdown over whether or not to raise the debt ceiling. The center-right conservatives who don’t watch the Sunday morning news show because they are at church will have missed the Republican messaging, though it is opaque at best. Writes Cillizza:

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) was pressed three times during an appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press” about whether a shutdown is on the table. All three times, McConnell deflected.

“We have two opportunities to do something important for the country on spending and debt; we ought not to miss this opportunity,” McConnell said, referring to budget, which expires March 4, and the debt ceiling, which the country is likely to hit by the end of March. “The president ought to step up to the plate with us and tackle it together.”

Likewise, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) was pressed repeatedly on “Fox News Sunday” about whether he would let the country slip into default if the Republican majority in the House didn’t get the spending cuts it wants.

“I don’t think it’s a question that is even on the table,” Boehner said, noting that such a situation would be a disaster.

The interviews largely escaped the media’s notice, but they were telling about the GOP’s dilemma. The verbal gymnastics by the top Republicans in the House and Senate reflect a very difficult balancing act for the GOP.

They’re making big pronouncements about cutting spending. And if they don’t get what they want, their only recourse is to not pass a budget or not raise the debt ceiling. In either case, the results would be immediate and painful.

Make no mistake: this is one of the big early battles of the new bipartisan Congress. Republicans are promising a lot, and they may have to threaten something big in order to get it. Keep an eye on the rhetoric as we get closer to March.

Read all of Cillizza for the set-up to his conclusion about the GOP’s situation, but part of the problem is that the new age of information flow mistakes a lack of clarity for a lack of planning. It appears that the GOP is bumbling and fumbling its way to a collision with the president with no clear strategy in mind, and no benchmarks for declaring success.

There may not be any, which may explain why it is next to impossible to find a member of the leadership talking publicly about exactly what they want to do with the continuing resolution, the budget and the debt limit. The public is waiting for the joint appearance of Speaker Boehner and Leader McConnell in which they both lay down the markers they will insist on.

Instead of transparency and clarity, however, the Congressional GOP seems to have fallen into the old way of saying nothing –sometimes at great length– and waiting until the eleventh hour approachs to meet in closed rooms with Democrats and then appear as one at the end to declare yourself satisfied and hope the voters agreed.

This is the very dynamic that led to the infamous Darman deal of 1990, the one in which the first President Bush broke his “read my lips” pledge.

Richard Darman was the very smart OMB director who had overseen negotiations on spending with the Democrats of the day, and who had maneuvered to get to the big meeting, keep all the cards on the table, and spring the deal on the public.

“His strategy,” Time Magazine’s Dan Goodgame and Michael Duffy wrote two decades ago, “called for both Republicans and Democrats, after hard bargaining, to sacrifice sacred cows for the good of the economy. Darman called it a ‘no fingerprints’ deal: by agreeing to a plan simultaneously, both sides could avoid electoral reprisals.”

“Plausible as it sounded,” the October, 15, 1990 story continued, “it overlooked the fact that the rest of the Congress has never been fond of deals cooked up behind closed doors by a handful of carefully chosen lawmakers.”

The Bush White House kept negotiating in secret, never revealing its clear objectives, so afraid of losing that it never appealed to the public for support in the effort to control spending.

“Gradually, it dawned on the White House that the Democrats were stalling,” the account noted, “and scoring political points as a result.”

Then President Bush, at Darman’s urging, blinked, and the president agreed to tax hikes:

The news fell on Washington like a bomb. Bush’s approval rating dropped 8 to 10 points over the next two weeks. Aroused Republicans shrieked that Bush had given away their party’s only winning issue in the post-cold war era. Many White House officials agreed. “It was the biggest single mistake of his presidency,” a senior official said. “We took a big political hit for it, and what did we get? Nothing.”

Sound familiar? Does it sound like a set of genuine conservatives being pushed to the back of the room while pragmatists afraid both of MSM condemnation and that their base will desert them, push for a deal they think will win hearts and minds because the Washington Post calls it a fair compromise?

It looks like Boehner and McConnell are trapped between their league of veteran legislators who want to have a chance to shuffle the cards again, and the new breed, fresh from the campaign of 2010 in which the demand for deep cuts and top-to-bottom reform could not have been made with more volume or clarity. Some of the veterans are recalling that Newt was outplayed and fear another “shutdown” like they do a young, fresh and well-funded challenger.

That is exactly what they will get if they blink now, however, and the reaction against a compromise that is really the status quo or anything less than a fundamental turning of the direction of the federal government will be severe.

This is what the Congressional GOP needs to hear: Now is the moment to cut deep and prove that a new seriousness has taken hold in the Republican delegation. If that means a shutdown, so be it. The Beltway-Manhattan media elite won’t be interpreting events for the country this time. The Tea Party and the new media will out-organize and out-publicize the old guard.

But those same vast and organized forces favoring fiscal sanity will be furious if the House majority so recently returned shows itself as timid and unwilling to fight hard and long and right now.

Furious, and unwilling to listen to explanations of how the Democrats still hold the Senate and the president can veto anything. Imagine the revolt against the immigration “compromise” of 2006 times ten. The GOP has a choice: Fight now or lose the movement that propelled them to the majority.

The fact is that the House controls the purse. Nothing –not a dollar– is spent unless the House approves it, and the House has a veto equal to the president’s on the debt ceiling, the continuing resolution, the budget and every entitlement.

If as many believe these deficits are sending us over a cliff, then the House has to act, has to throw the brakes and do whatever it can right now to stop the disaster from occurring. That means a showdown and a big negotiation, one in which the GOP turns to the public and says “Are you with us?”

That does not appear to be what is unfolding. This feels like Darman 2.0, but with devastating consequences for the Congressional Republicans, the GOP generally and the country. The New York Times is already editorializing in favor of a compromise, and blasting the “deep cuts” demanded by House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan. The MSM is doing its best to get the 2012 campaign started so that the focus will be off the Congress and the truly sickening deficits and the president’s laughable pledge to cut $400 billion over a decade when the deficit along this year will be more than 1.5 trillion dollars.

So it is time for the base to let the Congress know that they are demanding the deep cuts, demanding resolve, and refusing to accept “we need to wait” as an answer. 202-225-3121 connects to the Congressional switchboard. Let your member, Speaker Boehner and Majority Leader Cantor know.



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