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The Morning Plum: GOP makeover is impaired by delusional thinking

Republicans appear to have persuaded large swaths of the party’s base that the campaigns to cut spending and to repeal Obamacare are moral crusades so urgent that the zeal behind them must never be permitted to weaken even slightly. This has created intertwined delusions — you can keep cutting spending forever with no consequences; one of these days Obamacare will face its grand reckoning — that have restricted the GOP’s maneuvering room on several fronts which are in the news today.

The New York Times has a big story this morning reporting that Eric Cantor’s drive to soften the party’s image has run headlong into the intransigence of conservatives unwilling to deviate from their austerity-only ideology and agenda. The latest example: The Helping Sick Americans Now Act, which would create a federal “high risk pool,” funded with money from another part of Obama’s health care law, that would allow people with preexisting conditions to get subsidized coverage.

The move was simultaneously designed to undermine Obamacare while portraying Republicans as compassionate towards those with preexisting conditions. But conservatives opposed it because it did not offer the promise of the complete destruction of Obamacare — a blow to the party’s effort to rebrand itself at a time when it continues to push for Obamacare repeal while offering no meaningful alternative. Yet this isn’t surprising. As Jonathan Chait argued recently in a different context, the GOP will not be able to offer any such alternative until the party untethers itself from the “decision that they’d rather keep taxes low than spend money to cover the uninsured.”

Meanwhile, on FAA delays, Republicans continue to celebrate the sequester as a victory for themselves, even as they decry the sequester-generated flight delays and blame Obama for them. In a must read, Jonathan Cohn details that this schizophrenic message gets to the core of the party’s larger problem. “In an ideal world, this would shake Republican faith in sequestration as an acceptable budget policy,” Cohn writes. “They’d start discussions about replacing it with some other deficit reduction plan — ideally, one that didn’t rely so exclusively on immediate and arbitrary spending cuts.”

Yes, it turns out that in order to cut spending, you have to … cut spending on programs people like. But Republicans have spent years pushing the notion that the deficit can be dramatically reduced with zero in new taxes, and only through spending cuts, with little consequence. (The Paul Ryan budgets could not achieve their purported deficit reduction goals without wiping out large swaths of the federal government, and so they don’t detail with meaningful specificity how they’d achieve those goals.) So Cohn’s ideal GOP rethink of the sequester is an impossibility, too.

As the big Times piece on Cantor observes, this remains a problem for the GOP. Its efforts to soften its image continued to be stymied by the fact that a “large core of the House Republican conference” has “simply proved unwilling to move beyond the austerity message.”

This applies to the debt ceiling, too. Republicans know the debt limit doesn’t actually give them leverage, because they’ve already revealed they’re not prepared to allow default. But conservatives may insist on a debt ceiling showdown designed to win still more spending cuts, anyway. So GOP leaders are rolling out a new strategy to deal with this problem. And that takes us to our next item.

* Republicans prepare their debt ceiling strategy: House Republicans are moving forward with an initiative that would require the Treasury Department to pay public bond holders and Social Security beneficiaries even if Congress refuses to raise the debt ceiling. The idea is supposed to be that this takes the threat of default (narrowly speaking) off the table, which in theory will make it politically easier for Republicans to demand concessions in exchange for raising the debt limit.

In reality, this represents a concession that Republicans are not prepared to allow default — a key tell that reveals they don’t have leverage here, just as they didn’t have leverage last time.

* Economic insecurity is widespread and pervasive: Ron Brownstein has a must read on some new National Journal polling that shows just how deeply ingrained and pervasive middle class economic insecurity has become. As Brownstein notes: “the results highlight how much economic anxiety and political alienation still shadow daily life, even after the blackest clouds of the Great Recession have lifted.”

This is partly why many political strategists believe the economy holds the key to the next two elections.

* Tsarnaev brothers only had one gun: More detail emerges: “Law enforcement officials now say they have recovered only one gun elsewhere, which they believe was used by Mr. Tsarnaev’s older brother, Tamerlan — not the three previously reported.”

This is the gun that reportedly had its serial number rubbed out; it’s still unclear where it came from.

* Left turns up heat on Chained CPI: From the inbox:

Today, MoveOn will hold nationwide actions urging Democrats to break with President Obama and oppose any Social Security benefit cuts. MoveOn will hold events at more than 88 Congressional offices across the country.

Also today, House and Senate liberals will send a letter to the president demanding a sit-down meeting to underscore their opposition to Chained CPI.

* House GOP pulls immigration debate to the right: The Hill reports:

Lawmakers in the House are expected to include a longer path to citizenship and a larger guest-worker program than the Senate did in its rival plan for immigration reform, people with knowledge of the discussions said.

Immigration is thought to be the one area where the party really will evolve — in the face of demographic pressures — but this again indicates how hard even this will be.

* Obama’s political operation enters the climate wars: Organizing for Action is rolling out a new, multi-layered, years-long campaign designed to pressure climate deniers in Congress and hold them accountable for helping feed climate denialism. The move will constitute another test of whether Obama’s reconfigured campaign operation can do a better job pushing his agenda than it did last term.

What remains to be seen, though, is whether OFA will advocate anything specific beyond just prodding climate-deniers, a Dem base pleaser. For instance, the OFA campaign says nothing about Obama’s pending decision on the Keystone pipeline.

* Why Heidi Heitkamp voted No on background checks: The Senator from North Dakota explains her No vote:

“In this office, the calls literally were before the last day at least 7 to 1 against that bill. This was after a series of very extensive ad campaigns done in my state saying call me and tell me to support it.”

This illustrates that familiar “intensity gap,” and shows how good the “gun rights” side is at whipping up a small but impassioned minority to create impressions of mass public outrage over gun control that cow lawmakers. Again: The gun control forces need to show that they are able to extract a political price for these votes.

* And Oama is not worried about looking like a “sap”: Last night, Obama told donors:

“Occasionally I may make some of you angry because I’m going to reach out to Republicans, and I’m going to keep on doing it,” he said. “Even if some of you think I’m a sap, I’m going to keep on doing it because that’s what I think the country needs.”

This will irritate folks on the left who fear this posture will lead to more compromises that give away too much to Republicans, but in truth, this is who Obama always has been, temperamentally and politically.

What else?