Unlike virtually every fiscal showdown in the Obama era, the Republicans embarking on the debt ceiling fight should spend some time figuring out what they want, how they are going to get there and what they will do if the president refuses to agree to real entitlement reform. I would suggest they consider 10 critical questions:
1. What is the vehicle for their plan and who drafts it? Is it part of the budget (and hence subject to different rules) or a separate bill or series of bills?
2. What happens to tax reform? Is that part of the debt ceiling fight or left for another fight?
3. Will they address Social Security or just Medicare and Medicaid?
4. Are they prepared to go beyond the debt ceiling and if so what arrangements can they make to service the debt and pay Social Security checks out of operating revenue? (Without this they better stop threatening to take measures they can’t feasibly carry out.)
5. Does the House go first, and if so can they get the entire GOP caucus essentially on the same page with regard to the substance of their spending restraint plan?
6. Who is going to run the public campaign to explain what the Republicans are doing and why it is essential for the economy to recover and to avoid a European-style debt crisis?
7. How do they force votes in the Senate and produce an actual budget?
8. Are they prepared to accept any additional revenue increases that may flow from tax reform, or are they drawing a line after the $600 billion tax hike? On this too they better figure out their bottom line and be willing to adhere to it.
9. How does this fit into the larger agenda of opportunity, free-market capitalism and, yes, “fairness”?
10. How will they present entitlement reform — as the bitter medicine of spending cuts or, in the words of one Capitol Hill Republican, as a means of guaranteeing “the American way of life, and securing of livelihoods so we can freely pursue happiness and fulfillment”?
I’m sure there are dozens of other queries, but these seem to be the most fundamental. If there is not agreement on these points now there will be bloody fights and chaos later. This is no time for fire-ready-aim!
The biggest reason for optimism is the apparent agreement among House and Senate Republicans to skip the fruitless, secret negotiations with the president. With a normal legislative process House and Senate Republican leadership have a better chance of keeping their members on board and their public messaging focused. They also are better able to force the Senate to participate in the process, and take some of the heat.
They should not forget the public salesmanship on this, traditionally a weak area for Republicans. They need a campaign — perhaps beginning with a CSPAN-covered event — on their “Save the Country” effort. That means using old and new media and finding well-spoken, media-savvy spokespeople. Unless Republicans explain why this is essential and how they are going to repair and preserve the safety net, they will lose the country and their nerve.
Faced with a liberal president unwilling to reform entitlements and a Democrat-controlled Senate unwilling to take a position on much of anything, the odds are still against the GOP succeeding. But unless they think these issues through and prepare the field of engagement the battle will be lost before it is begun.