February 11, 2013

The new Republican push, as Robert Costa has been reporting, is for a new version of a balanced-budget amendment. Of course, it has no chance for passage; the last time such an amendment came up for a vote, it was crushed, and that was in the more GOP-friendly 112th Congress.

Greg Sargent has a quick review of what’s wrong with the particular versions of the amendment that Republicans have been pushing recently, and he notes that the GOP seems to prefer “a series of outright gimmicks” to actually working on policy.

That’s exactly right.

What occurs to me is the contrast between the GOP gimmicks and Democratic efforts to, you know, actually get things done (on, say, immigration and guns) despite divided government.

There’s a historical analogy that I think works reasonably well. Democrats in the 1990s desperately wanted universal health care, but the effort in Bill Clinton’s first two years collapsed and there was no chance to get it through Republican congresses after that. Democrats could have chosen the symbolic path on what was, after all, a pretty popular position in the abstract. They could have written a constitutional amendment guaranteeing health care to all; it might even have been reasonably popular, especially if they wrote it mainly in order to score rhetorical points.

But that’s not what they did. Instead, they looked for a way to improve actual, rather than symbolic, health care, and found an area in which they could work productively with Republicans. The result was the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (S-CHIP), and a lot of kids got health-care coverage. It was nothing close to what Democrats wanted, but real progress on their major goal nonetheless.

That option is open to Republicans today: Find common ground, and get some of what you want, even if you can’t get it all. But that works only if you have real, substantive goals that you actually care about. More and more, it appears that many Republicans simply care much more about symbolic stands rather than substantive policy.

After all, there’s really no other reason to support a balanced-budget amendment.

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