As he was throughout the Syria debacle, President Obama and the previously adept White House PR machine seem off kilter. Obama called House and Senate leaders to the White House to put on a show suggesting he’s involved in solving the continuing resolution deadlock, but then got caught in his own rhetoric that he’d never, ever negotiate on the CR.
The leaders of both parties from both houses said no progress had been made after an hour and a half session in the Oval Office without any staff. After the meeting, Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) said the president “reiterated tonight he will not negotiate.” . . .
We’ve got divided government,” Boehner added outside the White House. “We had a nice conversation, a light conversation, but at some point we’ve got to allow the process that our Congress gave us to work out. All we’re asking for here is a discussion and fairness for the American people under Obamacare.”
So what was the point of the meeting? Boehner and the Republicans made it obvious that it was all about Obama trying to evade the rap that, come to think of it, he’s awfully intransigent.
The House went on the offense again Wednesday evening, passing bills to fund critical services that they’ve highlighted (e.g. monuments, D.C. government) or about which Democrats have committed gaffes. (If nothing else, Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) will be appreciated by Republicans for snarling, “Why would we want to do that?” in response to a question from CNN’s Dana Bash question as to whether Democrats shouldn’t fund the NIH even if it saved one child’s life.)
But before Republicans get carried away with a full 24 hours of modestly favorable press coverage, they might consider that their day-to-day tactics don’t amount to a viable strategy. They haven’t gotten the president to fold; they haven’t moved their hard-liners off the CR issue, and they haven’t gotten anywhere on inducing Obama to negotiate on the debt ceiling.
The reactive tactics are an understandable result of an option leadership did not want to choose, namely staging a futile CR battle over defunding Obamacare. But by focusing on the CR, they risk getting their own hard-liners dug in. Already prone to dreams of grand victories, they are coming to believe that a few scuff marks on the White House mean a collapse is around the corner. The confuse a good day on Twitter with progress in getting out of a trap set by hard-liners and outside groups who aren’t the ones to figure out an escape hatch.
House Republican moderates and leadership should be wary of falling in love with their own gotcha moments. It’s a cheap high, and ultimately unsatisfying. They have a looming debt-ceiling deadline that will not be overcome by snarky jibes. And by the same token, the president can summon and dismiss congressional leaders every other day, but the markets (not to mention voters) will be unimpressed. At some point, someone — it seems to be a quiet but persistent Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) — will still need to figure out how to avoid a genuine catastrophe, a debt default.
Reports suggest that while the theatrics go on publicly Boehner behind the scenes is rallying support for a significant deal on the debt ceiling including something on entitlements and maybe tax reform. Expectations on the right for a debt ceiling deal, however, need to be adjusted. They might loosen up on sequester budget numbers in exchange for something on entitlement reform or pro-growth tax reform or an energy bill. Obamacare changes will have to be focused, paid for and likely temporary. And the ultimate inducement to Obama may be a debt ceiling increase that gets him through the end of his presidency.
Yesterday, I posited two options: Make a discrete deal on the CR or move onto the debt ceiling where all issues can be addressed. As time runs down, the latter appears to be the only viable strategy. That in turn will put Ryan front and center as he figures out how to keep Republicans together on something much more important than mocking Harry Reid.