By William Kristol
Tuesday, May 12, 2009
The Republican Party's navel is a pretty unattractive thing.
So maybe Republicans should stop obsessively gazing at it. Instead, the GOP might focus on taking on the Obama administration, whose policies are surprisingly vulnerable to political and substantive attack. Battling Barack Obama is an enterprise that offers better grounds for Republican hope than indulging in spasms of introspection or bouts of petty recrimination.
No, the payoff from a policy confrontation with Obama won't be immediate. The economy appears to be set for a short-term uptick. Obama remains popular. Many of his proposals look superficially attractive. But we haven't yet had a thorough airing of their implications, to say nothing of their real-world consequences if they are enacted.
So one should assume Obama will stay strong through the summer and perhaps even the fall. But 2009-10 could be the winter of Obama's discontent. Republicans should be making the case against Obama's policies now so that citizens know whom to blame next year.
To make things simple for busy and easily distracted GOP pols, I'll organize the Republican anti-Obama agenda into five categories, all beginning with the letter "D" (as in Democrat).
-- Debt. The extraordinary circumstances of the financial meltdown have dulled the shock that this year's budget deficit will top $1.8 trillion, four times last year's record amount. I'm not sure, though, that people understand the government is now borrowing one dollar for every two it spends. And are Americans fine with next year's deficit of $1.3 trillion on a budget of $3.6 trillion? This is to say nothing of endless record deficits in the future, never dipping below $500 billion and totaling more than $7 trillion between 2010 and 2019, even under Obama's rosy economic forecast.
The debates over Obama's budget in Congress this fall, followed by the unveiling of his fiscal 2011 budget in February, should give Republicans a chance to bring Obama's big spending and big borrowing plans into focus.
-- Defense. It's one thing to run deficits to fight wars and defend the country. It's another to throw money at everything except defense and to increase the national debt while skimping on defense spending over the next several years, to the point where such spending will be, by 2016, at its lowest percentage of GDP since before World War II. Is the world really the safest it has been since the 1930s? Is it responsible to declare a peace dividend when we're not at peace?
-- Diplomacy. Everyone hopes diplomacy will work -- with the Islamic Republic of Iran, above all, but also with Syria, Russia, North Korea, Venezuela and everyone else with whom the Obama administration has been hitting reset buttons. By early next year, though, reality will begin to render its verdicts. We'll begin to see concrete results -- or the lack thereof -- from Obama's charm offensive. We may also see the costs of faith in sweet talk -- such as nervous allies and emboldened adversaries.
-- Detention. Obama has created a major political problem for himself with his promise to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility by next January. This issue, with all of its permutations and ramifications, is going to be in the news constantly in the coming months -- and not in a way that will be helpful to the administration. Guantanamo feels more and more like the Panama Canal Treaty in 1977-78, a perhaps mostly symbolic issue that caused terrible political problems for both the Democratic administration and Democrats in Congress. The difference is that the issue of detention and interrogation is more central to the ongoing war against the jihadists than the Panama Canal was to the Cold War.
-- Docs (sorry -- it's the best "D" word I could think of to capture the health-care issue). The Obama administration seems confident it can win the health-care debate and has certainly tried to learn from the Clinton administration's failure in 1993-94. But the polling on health care is surprisingly similar to that of 1993: Everyone likes the idea of reform, but most Americans remain quite satisfied with the quality and accessibility of their own health care, and very worried about policies that would impair that quality or access.
As James Capretta and Yuval Levin argue in this week's Weekly Standard, the Obama plan can be fairly charged with endangering both and may, therefore, be far more politically vulnerable than its backers think. Even if the Democrats can ram elements of Obama's health plan through Congress this summer under the budget reconciliation process, there will still be a debate, presumably in the fall and winter, on legislation needed to complete the plan.
Bill Bennett likes to quote the adage that no one ever became a saint through someone else's sins. But Republicans don't need to qualify for sainthood. They need to get back in the game. If Republicans begin to highlight the problems in Obama's five-D agenda now, they should be ready to compete, with a real shot at success, in 2010.
William Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard, writes a monthly column for The Post.