The Morning Plum: The GOP’s policy nihilism

Mark April 11th, 2013, down on your calendars as the day that the GOP’s fiscal ruse was finally unmasked with total clarity: Republicans don’t actually want entitlement cuts. Or, to put it another way, they say they want entitlement cuts, but they want Dems to own them.

A few of us have been pointing this out for some time, but now it’s breaking through to the neutral press, thanks to the ongoing shenanigans between John Boehner and NRCC chair Greg Walden. As I noted here yesterday, Boehner says he supports Chained CPI, but Walden continues to signal that he’ll use Obama’s embrace of it in his budget to pillory Dem candidates in 2014.

Walden’s position has infuriated conservatives who support Chained CPI, but he’s sticking with it, anyway. In a must read, Roll Call’s Jonathan Strong captures the meaning of this dynamic perfectly:

The debate Walden’s remarks has set off inside the GOP shows many Republicans harbor deep-seated fears about publicly supporting the entitlement cuts they supposedly back and have demanded Obama and other Democrats embrace since taking control of the House in 2011.

“Walden is doing the right thing for the 30 seats that control the majority of the House, and that’s what the mission of NRCC chair is,” said Brock McLeary, the president of Harper Polling and a former top political hand at the NRCC.

Got that? Walden is doing the right thing politically for Republicans by attacking Dems over a proposal that GOP leaders say they want Dems to embrace. Not only that, but Boehner — who claims he disagrees with Walden — won’t call on him to stand down, and actually finds the whole thing funny:

Boehner declined to publicly urge Walden not to use chained CPI to attack Democrats, noting again that he had talked to Walden and “we’ll leave it at that.” Asked later in a Capitol hallway what he said to Walden, the speaker just laughed.

Similarly, I was unable yesterday to get Boehner’s office to say whether he wants Chained CPI to be taken off the table in the 2014 elections.

In one sense, this validates the worst fears on the left that if Obama proposed Chained CPI it would expose Dem candidates to GOP charges that they want to take away grandma’s Social Security. This is a legitimate fear, and Democrats should not embrace Chained CPI, which is horrible policy. But it’s also true that Dems all but certainly won’t have to vote on the proposal. And for what it’s worth, some Dems I’ve spoken to believe they can win the argument over entitlements in spite of Obama’s support for Chained CPI, and that public perceptions that Dems are willing to compromise to solve problems — and Republicans aren’t — is a net positive for them.

All that aside, what you’re seeing clearly demonstrated here is a kind of policy nihilism on the part of the GOP that helps explain why addressing the country’s problems has become all but impossible. It isn’t enough for Boehner to disagree with Walden over Chained CPI. Boehner effectively controls the NRCC. The notion that this is a private matter between him and Walden is just hogwash. If Boehner doesn’t think the NRCC should attack Dems over a policy that GOP leaders themselves say they want Dems to join them in supporting, he could, you know, just say so. After all, if Republicans won’t say they’ll refrain from attacking Dems over Chained CPI — after embracing the Ryan plan to cut Medicare while attacking Dem candidates over Obamacare’s Medicare cuts for two straight cycles — why would they ever embrace entitlement reform, as GOP leaders themselves are asking them to do?

This reflects what Steve Benen, Jonathan Bernstein, Jed Lewison, and others have been describing as a kind of “post policy” Republican Party. As Rachel Maddow recently asked, is it really an exaggeration to argue that today’s Republicans are  “just positioning themselves vis-a-vis the president, and they’re not actually invested in any particular outcome for the country?”

* The GOP’s fiscal unseriousness: Republicans will argue that their support for the Paul Ryan plan proves they do want entitlement reform. But the Post has a strong editorial today pointing out that the Ryan plan in its current form isn’t actually a fiscal plan, and renders the GOP demand that Obama get “serious” absurd:

The pooh-poohing would be easier to take if the GOP had a real-world plan of its own. Instead, it pretends it can balance the budget without raising taxes — but also without ever specifying the details of the spending that would be decimated, discretionary or otherwise. [Paul] Ryan and others so far have wanted credit for fiscal prudence without political cost.

The post-policy party.

* Gay marriage on the march:new NBC/WSJ poll finds support for gay marriage at a new high, with 53 percent of Americans suppporting it. NOt only that, but 63 percent say the federal government should recognize gay marriages performed in states where they are legal, and 56 percent want a federal standard defining marriage.

That suggests the American public doesn’t want a legal state-by-state patchwork approach, and wants this issue settled already.

 * Why the public is evolving on gay marriage: This finding from the NBC/WSJpoll, courtesy of NBC’s Mark Murray, is really noteworthy:

Strikingly, nearly 8-in-10 respondents (79 percent) say they know or work with someone who is gay or lesbian, which is an increase of 14 points since December and 17 points since 2004.

* The limits of the Dems’ sequester strategy: One last set of findings from the NBC/WSJ poll: While a plurality agrees that the sequester spending cuts are harming the economy, by 47-46, a far larger 64 percent say the cuts have had little or no impact on them or their families personally. This again raises the possibility that the impact of the cuts is too diffuse or scattered to exert the pressure on lawmakers Dems had hoped for.

* Gun lobby can still kill reform with amendments: The Times has a good piece detailing the amendments that opponents of progress on gun violence will use to try to derail the package of reforms that moved forward yesterday:

The worst — a huge priority of the N.R.A. — would require every state to honor the concealed-handgun permits of other states, overriding their own restrictions. That would allow a resident of Florida, where deliberately lax laws have given out such permits to hundreds of felons, to carry a concealed gun in New York or Connecticut, where the laws are much more strict and sane. If this amendment were to be attached to the background-check bill — and there may be enough votes to make that happen — the underlying bill would no longer be worth passing.

The problem is that red state Democrats who take marching orders from the NRA may be tempted to vote for this, perhaps getting it 60 votes.

 * Gabrielle Giffords launches in person push on the Hill: Giffords is set to personally return to Capitol Hill next week to push her former colleagues to act on guns, which will be a high profile media event. Also: As I noted here yesterday, Giffords is also set to attend an event with John Boehner, which could prove to be an interesting moment, given that he’s under pressure to allow a House vote on the gun proposals she’s pushing.

* And Heidi Heitkamp, a letdown as a Senator: Senator Heidi Heitkamp has told the Newtown familes she met with recently that she can’t support expanded background checks or the high capacity magazine ban. Her explanation:

“In our part of the country, this isn’t an issue,” Ms. Heitkamp explained in an interview afterward. “This is a way of life. This is how people feel, and it is extraordinarily difficult to explain that, especially to grieving parents.” Bottom line, she said, “I’m going to represent my state.”

This is terrible. If Heitkamp wants to oppose the magazine ban, that’s fine, but to validate the suggestion that expanded background checks is in any way a threat to gun culture is just nothing but political cowardice. Let’s hope ultimately she was only talking about the magazine ban here.

What else?

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UPDATE: Despite the New York Times’ reporting, it appears Senator Heitkamp has not taken a position yet on the proposal to expand background checks. Her spokesperson, Whitney Phillips, tells me:

“She met with the Newtown families and listened to their concerns, and indicated she would vote for the motion to proceed. Senator Heitkamp is undecided on background checks but has in fact indicated she opposes the assault weapon ban.”

It’s good to hear she’s still open to expanded background checks; I retract my suggestion that Heitkamp is a “letdown as a Senator.” I really hope she does the right thing.

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