In his underdog bid to retain the presidency in 1948, Harry Truman ran hard against the “Do-Nothing Congress,” so much so that his put-down of the Republicans who controlled Capitol Hill became a permanent part of the political lexicon, far more resonant today than anything Truman ever said about his Republican opponent for the White House, Thomas Dewey.
Since a Democrat is once again in the Oval Office facing down a GOP-controlled House, some have broached the possibility of Barack Obama’s doing a reprise of Truman’s theme in 2012 and taking on, once again, a do-nothing Congress.
Truman faced a Congress obsessively hostile to the policy legacy of FDR and determined to block Truman’s own “Fair Deal” agenda (at the center of which was the first Democratic push for universal health care). Obama faces implacable GOP hostility to the agenda of his first two years, from health care reform to the unsuccessful cap and trade energy legislation to his call for an increase in top tax rates. And, of course, were Obama to propose major new government programs, the GOP House under John Boehner would be happy to vote them down. So there would at least seem to be a decent opportunity for Obama to portray a partisan standoff between the White House and Congress as Republican do-nothingism.
Except that to make a plausible case that your opponent is doing nothing, don’t you have to be proposing to do something? At the moment, it doesn’t look like Obama is in a proposing frame of mind.
True, his State of the Union address spelled out a couple of spending initiatives House Republicans will be happy to defeat or let languish, from “clean energy” subsidies to high-speed rail. The speech was memorable (if at all) not for its proposals, but for one of its rhetorical flourishes—not that anyone even now can recollect what our “Sputnik moment” is.
Obama played small-ball. His most far-reaching proposal—which he chose to underplay rhetorically—was to lower the corporate tax rate in exchange for elimination of “loopholes” businesses now enjoy. But that sounds like the beginning of a productive negotiation with House Republicans, one that would end with House Democrats in a rage—not a recipe for obduracy on the part of the GOP.
Next came the Obama budget, which boldly looked trillion-dollar deficits in the eye and told them to stick around forever. Most egregiously, Obama proposed basically nothing that might get spending on entitlements under control, for which he was blasted not only by Republicans but also by fiscal-minded Democrats and the editorial boards of newspapers that never wasted a moment of their time thinking about endorsing John McCain for president.
It’s entirely plausible that Obama and congressional Democrats have in mind a replay of 1995-96, when they pilloried budget-cutting Republicans with the charge that they were out to destroy “Medicare, Medicaid, education, and the environment.” And indeed, some Republicans think that putting serious budget cuts on the table—in short, proposals to restrain the growth of entitlements—would be a mistake, playing into Democratic demagoguery on these issues.
Yet it seems that House Republicans are prepared to press ahead with proposals at a sufficient level of detail to be credible, and therefore to leave themselves politically vulnerable. The first major move will come when House Budget Committee chairman and big-thinker Paul Ryan unveils his budget proposal in April. He emphasized in the GOP response to Obama’s State of the Union that spending restraint can’t wait, and since then he has affirmed that tackling entitlements will be a part of his proposal.
If Republicans go through with it, they will be betting that the politics of 2011 are very different from the politics of 1995—that Americans are worried about deficits and debt in a way they weren’t in the boom years of the mid-1990s. That’s a risky strategy for a couple reasons, the biggest involving a bit of amnesia: Americans were sufficiently unhinged about the national debt in 1992 to give Ross Perot 19 percent of the vote, and Republicans won their majority in November 1994 in no small part because of their advertisements for themselves as fiscal conservatives.
On the other hand, a failure to take spending cuts seriously would provoke an intraparty backlash of epic proportions, with the Tea Party faction prepared to vote en masse against a quavering GOP leadership. And for all the grief Republicans took in 1995-96, including the political rehabilitation of Bill Clinton, they actually did end up with a budget heading toward balance (thanks not so much to their own parsimony as to an economy generating tax receipts much higher than projected). And they held on to their majorities, too. If some Democrats have consoled themselves with the thought that Obamacare was worth sacrificing their House majority for, some new GOP members certainly believe losing their seats would not be too high a price to pay for entitlement reform.
And GOP leaders may not be wrong. Their arguments about the unsustainability of current policy and the need to save Social Security and Medicare for future generations may stand a chance against the certain Democratic onslaught. Some of us were hoping the trillions we’ve been blowing through would have been available to ease the baby boomer retirement bulge. In the words of the great punk ska band Sublime, “Got to find a reason, a reason things went wrong. Got to find a reason why my money’s all gone.”
So bring on the confrontation. But the emerging GOP strategy seems to have a more subtle element as well. It’s not necessarily that Republicans expect to persuade Obama to take meaningful action. It’s how they plan to portray their failure.
The Washington Post’s Ruth Marcus, who is in general a lot more sympathetic to Obama than to congressional Republicans, had a column last week asking the “Where’s Waldo?” question of Obama and his administration’s nonplan to deal with the deficit (among other instances of invisibility). She did not miss the irony of a developing GOP line of attack on Obama rather at odds with Republicans’ characterization of him as the ambitious ultraliberal nationalizer of health care.
No, the GOP lamentation is now Obama’s inaction. As Paul Ryan told ABC News in mid-February in response to the Obama budget, “I was actually hoping for some sincere presidential leadership” on bringing down the deficit. “He is not leading.”
Rising GOP Senate star Marco Rubio of Florida has lately been taking the next rhetorical step. It’s essential to act now on entitlements, he told a Washington audience, while reforms can still be put in place without harming those who now depend on the programs or are about to. Rubio also expressed his doubts about the ability of Congress alone to solve the problems: “Entitlement reform requires presidential leadership.”
Maybe that’s a plea for Obama to get involved in the issue. Maybe it’s also an interesting preview of the line of attack Republicans want to adopt if he doesn’t: Barack Obama, Do-Nothing President.
Tod Lindberg, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and editor of Policy Review, is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard.