Why are Washington’s politicians doing this to themselves? They are replacing serious budget negotiations with a stupid game of chicken that threatens the government’s credit and basic operations.
Politicians are not as dumb as this exercise makes them look. They know perfectly well that voters will look at all this as a little boys’ schoolyard game, last-minute deals to postpone chaos notwithstanding. A price for looking foolish has been paid.
So how did they end up here? The answer is rooted in a huge misreading of last year’s election returns by Congress’ new Republican leadership and by many of the Republican freshmen. It is also the result of deep splits in the Republican Party that have delayed passage of appropriations bills. And Republican leaders let this happen because they had every reason to expect that the president would bend to their will. That was their only defensible calculation, but so far, it has turned out to be wrong.
The Republicans’ biggest mistake was trying to ram through huge changes in the structure of government without anything like the public support that such transformations require. This is ironic, since the Republicans’ favorite line during Clinton’s first two years is that large changes should never be attempted on the basis of slim majorities.
After 1994, the Republicans acted as if they suddenly had a mandate from heaven and the voters to do anything they wanted. But what mandate? The Republicans gathered roughly 52 percent of the vote in the House elections. The turnout was 39 percent of the potential electorate, hardly a popular outpouring. Their new majorities in both houses were quite narrow. And the evidence is quite clear that the 1994 vote was more a negative verdict on the Democrats’ failures than the result of some sharp ideological turn in the public.
The Bolsheviks were willing to launch a revolution without even having a majority. But whatever one thought was wrong with the Republicans, nobody lost sleep at night worrying that they were Leninists.
Maybe that was a mistake. As soon as he won his historic but far from overwhelming majority, Newt Gingrich began talking “revolution” and never stopped. His biggest revolutionary move was the balanced budget, which was built on ideas that were not discussed at all in 1994.
Sure, the Republicans promised a balanced budget. But they never told the voters what they planned to do to get there. When the Democrats said the Republicans would cut Medicare, the GOP accused them of “scare tactics.” The Republicans didn’t say they would take huge chunks out of Medicaid, nor did they explain what they’d do to student loans or a thousand other things. Indeed, they didn’t come up with a Medicare plan until this fall, hoping to rush it through before voters got too close a look.
The Republicans were counting on getting credit for boldness, which they did. By building pressure for a balanced budget as a general proposition, they also hoped to push Clinton their way, which they did for a while.
But then a couple of things happened. The most public involved Clinton’s own flip-flops on his tax and welfare programs, which reversed the pressures on him - it’s now more important for him to be tough than conciliatory. In addition, the Republicans have had difficulties presenting a united front by passing all their bills in time. A lot of Republicans have serious doubts about what the red hots in the House want to do, and they have struggled to modify, moderate and alter more radical proposals, delaying final action.
Now, the public mood seems to be working against the Republicans - and is also pushing Clinton away from them. In truth, the underlying mood, which is basically skittish, has not changed much since 1994. But the election results have. The public never wanted major cuts in popular programs, which is why the Republicans didn’t talk about Medicare in 1994; its wants were rather general, a desire that politicians reform and, where reasonable, pare down government. Once the Republicans went beyond that mandate - and failed to do much for reform - they started getting punished. Thus last week’s election results from Virginia and Kentucky.
After the 1994 voting, the GOP got some wise advice from strategist Bill Kristol. Kristol is no ideological shrinking violet, but he warned the Republicans not to pretend they controlled the White House yet. He suggested they take incremental steps to build toward a real mandate in 1996 that would give them both the institutional and popular support to achieve their program.
Instead, the Republicans sought much more than that and, in the process, educated the public on exactly what a balanced budget in seven years would really mean.
The way out of this is for everyone to fall back, to have a big public argument between now and 1996 and give the voters a chance to make the big decisions. The Republicans have made their approach clear; Clinton and the Democrats could usefully use the next year to, well, clarify exactly what they are for.
In the meantime, there could be some measurable progress toward deficit reduction, since everyone agrees that some cuts in Medicare and Medicaid are inevitable. The Republicans would not get their revolution, but the voters, who are supposed to run things, would be a lot more comfortable.