08 October 2013

The blame game: Gingrich 'startled' that today's GOP is smarter, less hated

One of the reasons that I find myself leaning toward some kind of compromise to resolve the government shutdown and raise the debt ceiling is that people in both major parties seem more interested in blaming each other should the worst happen than in preventing the worst from happening. I understand that brinkmanship is sometimes necessary in politics, particularly when dealing with bullies, and I understand the idea of preempting a precedent for "extorting" concessions from the majority party. Still, both parties seem more interested in spinning the crisis than ending it, and I think the Republicans are spinning it better. The problem, which may only grow worse as the deadline for raising the debt ceiling nears, is President Obama's repeated refusal to negotiate terms to end the shutdown and raise the ceiling. In Obama's mind, clearly, the point is that funding the government should not be subject to negotiation or "extortion." He remains convinced that the Republicans in the House of Representatives have no moral right, whatever their legal or constitutional rights are, to use their power of the purse to force changes to a "settled law," the Affordable Care Act.  Unfortunately, the issues of the shutdown, the debt ceiling and "Obamacare" are inextricably linked in the public mind, and while Obama may think he occupies the moral high ground by refusing to negotiate conditions for ending the shutdown and funding the government, he may not if the public thinks he's refusing to negotiate over Obamacare. However that plays, Republicans seem confident that Obama has painted himself into a corner again. Senators McConnell and Paul were overheard last week comparing notes on the effectiveness of Republicans' constant demand for negotiations and compromise compared to the Democrats' refusals. "I don't think they poll tested 'we won't negotiate,'" Paul reportedly said, "I think it's awful for them to say that over and over again." Some people see this conversation as a revelation of a cynical strategy, but why shouldn't Republicans strive to at least appear like the reasonable party in the dispute? The tactical wisdom of this course has even sunk into the thick skull of Newt Gingrich, the mastermind of the infamous 1995-96 government shutdown, who notes in his new capacity as a CNN commentator that Republicans now are receiving a smaller share of the blame for the shutdown than they did in his time. He credits that poll result to Obama's refusal to negotiate, though it should be noted that although the share of blame Republicans get now is less than it was in 1996, the public (or at least those polled) still blame Republicans for the current shutdown more than they blame the President or the Democrats as a whole. In fact, the same polls show that respondents blamed Obama, the person supposedly most unwilling to negotiate, less than they blamed his party. That may reflect a feeling that "Congress" in general is to blame for the crisis, but accounting for this shouldn't obscure the main point that respondents still blame Republicans more than anyone else. Gingrich doesn't deny that fact, but he argues that the narrower margin of blame now, compared with 1996, shows that something has changed in the country. He points to the difference in personality between Obama and President Clinton, who could never be accused of never wanting to negotiate with anybody. He also makes a kind of historic mea culpa, acknowledging that his own aggressive attitude while Speaker was to blame for the backlash against Republicans.

In retrospect I brought some of this on us because I was very firm and clear beforehand that we were prepared to close the government if that was what it took to get an agreement to balance the federal budget. In a sense, Americans were right to blame (or credit) us with the shutdowns because we were in fact on offense, seeking a decisive change in government. As the first House Republican majority in 40 years, we were feeling empowered, and we probably showed it too clearly.

Gingrich insists, however, that his shutdown had positive results, including the budget surpluses during Clinton's second term. He doesn't say whether the current shutdown is worth it; we can assume his opinion on Obamacare but he doesn't repeat it here. He ends with what has now become the standard Republican talking point: the crisis is sustained by Democrats' refusal to negotiate. If Democrats are going to stick to their guns, they're going to have to make clear exactly what is non-negotiable and why. Since to my knowledge they can't cite the law that requires Republicans to capitulate, they have a tough sell in store for them -- unless they really are more interested in blaming Republicans when the worst happens.



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Anonymous said...

So basically, politicians feel they have a right to harm the American people in order to get their way.

Shutting down the government stops services that millions of Americans depend on. In fact, from what I've heard, the government is already planning to cut the benefits they promised to the veterans of our various middle-east incursions.

You may argue (rightly) that repugnicans are under no legal constraint to cave in, but in shutting down the government, they are acting in a very amoral and unethical manner. Their job is to solve the nation's problems, not multiply them.

I see some predictions that this will cost them the house in the next election. I certainly hope it does.

Samuel Wilson said...

Anon: That's why there's a blame game. Both sides seem more interested in blaming the other for the harm done or the harm to come rather than preventing harm. The Republicans can keep arguing that Obama is to blame for his refusal to negotiate. It's a plausible argument so far as congressional rules and historical precedent are concerned, but that won't help the GOP if the public concludes that "they started it!"