January 18, 2013
Eric Cantor and John Boehner
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, left, and Speaker John Boehner (J. Scott Applewhite / AP)

As my colleague Greg Sargent has been noting, conservatives on and off Capitol Hill — from outside voices like Americans for Prosperity and the Wall Street Journal editorial board to many House and Senate Republicans – have backed away from threats not to raise the debt ceiling. (Update: House Republicans will offer a short-term increase in the debt ceiling.) Accompanying this sensible retreat is a call from several key conservative voices for Republicans to stop the endless brinkmanship with the president. At the Washington Examiner, Philip Klein writes:

Over the past two years, Republicans have been giving the hard sell on serious spending cuts and fundamental reforms to the nation’s broken entitlement system. They’ve viewed every potential crisis … as an opportunity to corner Obama into agreeing to tackle the nation’s mounting debt problem.

This strategy has created a dynamic in which Obama has successfully portrayed Republicans as reckless, incapable of governance and willing to put the economy at risk to make a political statement. He’s been able to deflect questions about his own lack of action on deficits by blaming Republican intransigence. In the end, Republicans have very little positive to show for it. …

Consider, then, “Maneuver X”: … that Republicans remove all pressure. They should give Obama his debt limit increases without preconditions, and they shouldn’t allow any government shutdowns.

And in today’s Post, Charles Krauthammer writes:

Obama’s postelection arrogance and intransigence can put you in a fighting mood. I sympathize. But I’m tending toward the realist view: Don’t force the issue when you don’t have the power. …

[T]he key is: Go small and simple. Forget about forcing tax reform or entitlement cuts or anything major. If Obama wants to recklessly expand government, well, as he says, he won the election. … Aren’t you failing the country, say the insurgents? Answer: The country chose Obama. He gets four years.

Want to save the Republic? Win the next election. Don’t immolate yourself trying to save liberalism from itself.

At first glance then, this would be an important change in Republican tactics on the deficit. Klein and Krauthammer are certainly right that Republicans have had little political success with their current strategy: The latest Wall Street Journal/NBC poll finds that only a quarter of the country has a positive opinion of the GOP. (And the party has also taken a nine-point dive in Rasmussen’s generic congressional ballot since Election Day.) But what, policy-wise, do Klein and Krauthammer recommend? Klein:

Republicans should use their majority in the House to pass bills that actually do address the nation’s problems — its economic stagnation, rising energy and health care costs, mounting debt and so on. At the same time, they can keep blocking major new expansions of government.

Krauthammer:

[O]ffer to extend the debt ceiling through, say, May 1, in exchange for the Senate delivering a budget by that date — after four years of lawlessly refusing to produce one.

Not much. But it would (a) highlight the Democrats’ fiscal recklessness, (b) force Senate Democrats to make public their fiscal choices and (c) keep the debt ceiling alive as an ongoing pressure point for future incremental demands. …

Republicans should simply block what they can. Further tax hikes, for example.

Underneath the less reckless rhetoric, then, remains effectively the same Republican position that has existed all along: no tax increases and all spending cuts (designated as entitlement “reforms” where politically necessary). Similarly, congressional Republicans, despite apparently backing off a debt-ceiling showdown, remain determined to “use the coming fiscal debates to force a real reduction in debt and deficits,” no doubt in the same fashion. (Update: While calling for a short-term debt ceiling extension, House Speaker John Boehner made clear that spending cuts remain Republicans’ real top priority, emphasizing the nation’s “spending problem” and arguing that only spending cuts, not increased revenues, could spare the nation a credit downgrade.)

Of the $2.4 trillion in deficit reduction the president has signed off on since the start of FY 2011, the Center for American Progress calculates, 62 percent of that has come in the form of spending cuts, while only 26 percent has been through increased revenues. (The remainder comes from interest savings.) This imbalance is less likely to continue in Obama’s second term, now that the president has recognized the advantages of a stiffer spine. This is what Republicans consider “very little positive to show for” their intransigence.

The fact is that, underneath the gestures toward less brinkmanship, Republicans remain committed to the same extreme policies. It would be silly, of course, to expect Republicans to cave to all Democratic demands, but to continue to refuse to raise revenue in any meaningful amount means that any talk of moderation remains just that. The party’s abhorrence of compromise on policy will inevitably lead to the same showdowns that Washington has had over the last two years. As long as the Republicans are committed to being inflexible on policy, no amount of moderated rhetoric will hide their intransigence.

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James Downie is The Washington Post’s Digital Opinions Editor. He previously wrote for The New Republic and Foreign Policy magazine.