House Republicans lost the first round of the messaging battle over the budget last week with a lame attempt to cut less than $40 billion against the Pledge to America's goal of at least $100 billion, but then President Obama forfeited round two with an absurd budget that elicited a genuine bipartisan reaction of scorn for his fecklessness.
Proving themselves equal to the challenge of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, the new GOP majority promptly proceeded to block what looked like a clean attempt to defund Obamacare sponsored by Representative Steve King of Iowa and then followed with a series of failed amendments to cut spending featuring numerous senior Republicans voting to defend appropriations for, among other programs, the Legal Services Corporation.
Heading into the weekend the Beltway Republicans of 2006 seem to have returned and to have reclaimed their old ways and their old daze when it comes to communicating with the public.
So what happened?
Four years of watching the MSM fawn over Nancy Pelosi appears to have persuaded the House GOP Leadership that it controls the story line because it controls the gavel. Thus they believed that if they talked about an “open amendment process,” the legacy media would report that script, and that the Tea Party would care. The GOP leadership assumed that if they announced that “We will have many bites at the apple,” then the conservative activists who sent them to D.C. would read about these careful plans and nod in admiring agreement.
They thought that since Speaker Pelosi had had the help of the media in driving various narratives that they too would get acquiescence in the structuring of the storyline.
Wrong party. Wrong media. Wrong attitude towards the base.
The old media still loathes the Republicans new media on the conservative side doesn’t exist to support the GOP Beltway Establishment, just as the new political infrastructure made up of groups like TeaPartyPatriots.org doesn’t relay messages from headquarters to a compliant army of followers. Thus when the House GOP struck out on a path that did not deliver either the deep cuts that were promised, or the ideologically symbolic cuts that were expected like the defunding of NPR and CPB, or the defunding of Obamacare which was trumpeted, the grassroots began to pulse with a disappointment that is trending towards anger. The talking points are not working, but the rising chorus of criticism hasn’t prompted a reassessment so much as a doubling-down by the appropriators led by Chairman Hal Rogers.There are a lot of conclusions being drawn about the House GOP Caucus as a result, and although the Republicans are pleading for patience, they aren’t getting any.
This isn’t what was supposed to be happening, but the Republicans have once again misjudged the essential nature of what the base demands of them, which is a sense of urgency equal to that which powered the rhetoric of the fall, as well as an eagerness to join the battle, not retreat from it.
Over and over again the House leaders have shrunk back from talk of a shut-down as though a stand-off over principles which decided the November vote would be illegitimate. Despite the soaring deficits and the absurd “budget” submitted by the president, Speaker John Boehner, Majority Leader Eric Cantor and GOP Whip Kevin McCarthy have moved at every turn to dismiss the idea that a showdown looms over spending. There are vague promises of deep cuts down the road a few months, but not now –not when the Republicans have complete leverage over the new Continuing Resolution and the debt ceiling legislation, and not close enough to the election of November 2010 to assert with authority a mandate to act.
Imagine if Churchill, who spent most of the ‘30s arguing for rapid rearmament, had arrived back at the Admiralty on September 3, 1939 and announced that he would unveil his plans for the buildup in March of 1940 with a debate over the exact numbers to follow in May or June.
What the GOP did throughout the fall was build expectations for rapid and decisive action and then, presented with the opportunity to force the issue, the party elected to kick off rather than receive.
And then to punt on second down.
The Manhattan-Beltway media elite won’t be helping the GOP representatives dig out of the hole in which they now find themselves. So hopefully they will soon invoke the first rule of holes and stop digging. Time for the Speaker to gather the leadership team and reconsider the course they thought would work. Though the injury to their credibility is significant, it can be remedied, but not by telling the Tea Party youngsters to go along and play while the adults handle the serious work.
The cliff is very close, and even if the aggravation level among the veteran lawmakers is high with those activists who are new to the political scene, the House Republicans have to chose to listen to the voters, not dictate to them.