WASHINGTON -- In American revolutions, power generally flows to moderate revolutionaries. Sam Adams may get things started, but it is John who gets things done.
With more than 80 freshmen House Republicans ready to demolish the Capitol but unable to find its washrooms, influence will shift to leaders (think Eric Cantor, Paul Ryan and Tom Price) who possess both tea party credibility and governing experience. Their mix of boldness and discretion will determine much about the outcome of the conservative uprising of 2010. They have a serious, intricate plan -- in which much can go wrong.
First, House Republicans will produce a shock-and-awe budget, rolling back federal spending to 2008 levels -- undoing a 24 percent increase in discretionary spending. Ryan will set the overall targets. Appropriators will abandon scalpels for cleavers. The goal is reset the political clock -- to produce a pre-Obama budget.
Given the tightness of the budget squeeze, many interest groups will squeal, and some of the squealing will be justified. But the stakes of this Republican exercise are relatively low. There is no chance a House Republican budget would be approved by the Senate or signed by President Obama. The purpose is to indicate Republican seriousness to tea party voters and to dramatize the large expansion of government during the short Obama era. The likely outcome of a budget conflict with Democrats is a continuing resolution freezing federal spending at 2010 levels, perhaps with a small, across-the-board reduction.
Second, House Republicans will pursue a broad offensive against Obama's health care reform. Given the election outcome and public polling on the issue, Republicans are feeling no fear or hesitance. The House will vote for repeal -- which, once again, will go nowhere with the Senate or the president. So Republicans will try to block funding for the implementation of health care reform. And they are planning a series of high-profile oversight hearings to highlight the current and likely effects of Obamacare: premium increases, new burdens on state budgets and a higher-than-expected "dumping rate" as employers push their workers into the public health system. The objective here is to make the case for eventual repeal before most of the public subsidies go into effect in 2014, which would entrench the system.
Third, some House leaders want to begin laying the foundation for entitlement reform, since large, unfunded entitlement commitments are the main cause of the American fiscal crisis. But this approach splits the Republican conference, with some members asserting it is premature and politically damaging. Even supporters of raising the issue think in incremental terms. While America may have the Greek economic disease, the worst symptoms are not immediate. "We are not at the austerity stage yet," one House member told me. "We still have time to change on our own terms." The hope of entitlement-reform advocates is to spend two years preparing the public -- demonstrating that scaling back benefits is possible without removing the safety net, building alliances with centrist Democrats and ensuring that the 2012 Republican presidential candidate is supportive.
To some Americans, this agenda will seem ambitious. To others, it may seem frightening. But House leaders believe their main risk is appearing too timid to their own members. Even if this three-part strategy proceeds with efficiency and success, in two years it will result in a budget freeze, an unsuccessful guerrilla campaign against health reform, and the bare beginnings of the entitlement debate. Will tea party revolutionaries view this as victory? Will they be tempted by the Ross Perot option -- a third-party movement that would increase the odds of Obama's re-election?
One test of Republican strategy will come early. At some point from March to May, the federal government will require the authority to borrow more money. House Republican leaders will try to use a vote on increasing the debt limit to secure concessions from the Obama administration. But some newly elected Republicans may oppose increasing the limit under any circumstances. What tea party candidate was elected to add to the debt? The problem is, as one House Republican told me, "If we don't raise the limit, we are Argentina." So would John Boehner, the likely new speaker, be forced to go to House Democrats for support? How would that play among the Sam Adamses of the revolution, already suspicious of Boehner as an "establishment" figure?
There are always compromises in governing. But they are harder to make when one element of a political coalition views compromise itself as the problem.