An upcoming debt ceiling vote isn't fighting ground for GOP congressional leaders. It's a wonder why. But Senator Jim DeMint says he may fight a delaying action, filibustering the debt ceiling vote in an attempt to force a proposed balanced budget amendment out of Congress and to the states for consideration. Kudos to South Carolina's junior senator if he stands and fights; shame on Republican leaders if they back off the fight. Just where is the fight in most Washington Republicans, anyway? Boehner, McConnell, and lesser GOP leaders hyped a budget skirmish victory over President Obama the week before last as if it were D-Day -- you know, the start of a major offensive to free the nation from the clutches of fiscally reckless and liberty-trampling Democrats. But the GOP's budget win seemed more like a spat between a husband and wife over the vacation budget than the prelude to a bare-knuckled political brawl for the nation's future.
Did the Democratic Party, led by FDR, so thunderously change the terms of debate and political dynamics in the long ago 1930s that the GOP, deeply scarred, is forevermore the Surrendered Party? Were Goldwater and Reagan aberrations in the nearly eighty-year story of the GOP as compliant managers of the welfare state?
The nation's future, in no small measure, hinges on answers to those questions, and these: Are Washington Republicans fighters, like Grant, or dilettantes and ditherers? Do Republicans grasp that this confrontation with Mr. Obama and the leftwing Democratic Party isn't just about budget cuts, but is a fight for the heart and soul and direction of the country?
Do Republicans understand what the ultimate aim is of grassroots conservatives and tea parties? To wit, nothing short of a re-founding of the nation on originalist principles (Jefferson and Madison the lodestars)? Do Republicans truly appreciate that today's liberals are about more than "tax and spend," but are committed leftwing ideologues, willfully pushing to remake the nation into some corporatist and socialist amalgam? Is this prospect at all dreadful to Republicans, even if they share the belief?
Washington Republicans -- Boehner and McConnell, conspicuously -- argue that the 2011 budget fight wasn't the right ground to really contest the Democrats' spending and borrowing ploys; not the fight to try to turn the tide. Neither is the debt ceiling vote, as referenced. GOP leaders will attempt to wring some -- modest -- concessions from the debt ceiling vote, make some "progress," as their spin would have it, but the real fight is over the 2012 budget -- or so they're claiming.
Generals Boehner and McConnell have chosen the 2012 budget as the ground to stand and fight -- fight for big stakes. So be it. Boehner and McConnell will need to win more than bragging rights over cuts and budget changes that apply only a little friction to the national government's hyper-drive growth rate -- and to liberal-driven legislative and policy expansions that are shriveling freedom. From the 2012 budget fight better come indisputable markers and pathways to reforming and downsizing Washington.
What is meant by "markers and pathways to reforming and downsizing Washington" is starting the process of making structural changes to the national government that will measurably and significantly reduce its reach and power; it means eventual outright elimination of federal power (in education, for example) or returning power to the states and championing localism.
Make no mistake. Grassroots conservatives and tea parties want an America much closer to the founders' vision than a pruned-down, tidied up, better run version of FDR's or Obama's America. Failure by Republicans to apprehend this critical difference will doom the GOP -- rightly so. If Republicans walk away from the 2012 budget fight with no more than a smoke and mirrors victory, or something less than putting the national government on a true reform track, they can expect grassroots conservatives to start walking too -- and not with, but away from, the GOP.
The praise for Congressman Paul Ryan's budget plan has already become cliché. Yes, the Congressman is to be applauded for stepping up to offer his proposal. By Washington standards, what the Congressman has done took courage. And, yes, of vital importance, Ryan's proposal makes a serious start at undoing ObamaCare (Ryan's effort is valuable for that alone). Medicare is smartly addressed. Medicaid funding is reduced and packaged as block grants to the states, which is a step toward greater federalism and state authority. And there are no new taxes. All very good.
But much of the Ryan proposal is about restoring the status quo ante; spending levels would approximate those of 2008. Going forward, the Ryan budget plan slows and reduces the rate of national government growth. Yet what is needed is for Uncle's Sam's growth to be arrested; then, over time, there needs to be a net reduction in national government spending, not just a slowing down.
A big part of shrinking Washington means restructuring the government; departments (like Energy) need to be examined, greatly reduced in authority, or put out of business. Agencies (think EPA) need to have their roles constricted and large swaths of authority returned to the states, if such authority should be vested in government at all.
House Republicans have settled on the Ryan proposal. This is a mistake. The House Republican Study Committee has a bolder plan to offer. So does the U.S. Senate's Rand Paul. The wiser course would have been bringing Ryan, study committee members, and Paul to the table to hammer out a tougher plan than Congressman Ryan is offering, and then move together to fight to win as much of the tougher plan as possible. The GOP isn't going to get everything it wants legislatively on the budget; a more ambitious proposal makes for a better bargaining position. But GOP leaders are worried that a bolder budget plan will scare off voters; that may underestimate voter sensibilities. President Obama's profligate spending and borrowing, and his support of the nation's loose monetary policies, if not reversed, could well lead to economic catastrophe -- or a near-catastrophe. Some argue that the Ryan plan, even if enacted in total, won't do enough to avoid ruin.
On the great issues of the day, real leaders strive to articulate courses of action commensurate to the challenges faced. The times are begging for stronger remedies to big government than the GOP are embracing.
No one suggests that congressional Republicans forgo common sense, strategic and tactical considerations, or even political calculations in the fight with Democrats for the nation's future. Approaches, not principles, to winning the fight against Mr. Obama and the Democrats are situational. But whatever the approaches, all must serve the underlying goal of profoundly reorienting the national government toward less government, toward far less intrusion and confiscation by Washington; toward the re-establishment of true federalism. Therein lie the answers to avoiding future government folly and the resultant economic risk.
What Republicans seek in the budget fight must be bolder than advertised, and what they gain must make a substantial start toward an historic restoration of limited government.