House Speaker John Boehner is chiding President Obama for negotiating with Russian President Vladimir Putin while refusing to negotiate with House Republicans. Don’t worry, Mr. Speaker, he will negotiate. And when he does, there are a few things Republicans could learn from Putin about how he bested Obama and how Obama allowed him to do so.
Here are three lessons the GOP should take from Obama’s capitulation in the Syria standoff to help them win the upcoming budget standoff.
Lesson 1: Obama’s “red lines” shift. He went from threatening military action in Syria if Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad moved his chemical weapons to demanding that Assad not use his chemical weapons to demanding that he give up his chemical weapons. Assad responded by moving and using his chemical weapons not once but 14 times beginning in December 2012, just three months after Obama declared his red line. Obama did nothing. Assad paid no price. Now, instead of having to “go” (as Obama demanded in 2011) or face military action, Assad is our partner in disarmament.
With this record of vacillation, why on earth would Republicans believe Obama when he says he will not negotiate with them on the debt limit? Not only will he negotiate, he will capitulate. If the president was unwilling to launch an “unbelievably small” military strike against Syria, he’s not going to blow up the U.S. economy.
Lesson 2: Obama cuts deals when he’s cornered. Throughout the Syria crisis, Obama boxed himself in through a series of missteps. His WMD red line was not planned but a slip of the tongue. He then asked the world to join him in enforcing it — only to see Putin block U.N. Security Council authorization, the British Parliament vote no and NATO decline to help. Then Obama said he would act unilaterally but abruptly reversed course. He announced that he would go to Congress for authorization — against the advice of his staff and without so much as consulting congressional leaders about the chances of success. When Obama found himself on the verge of an embarrassing defeat on Capitol Hill, Putin stepped in and saved him by offering a deal to have Syria disarm. Obama took Putin’s offer because he was cornered — he had no choice.
Republicans do not have Obama similarly cornered — yet. The president is perfectly willing to let the government shut down on Oct. 1 and blame the GOP. What he cannot do is let the government default — because, as then-Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner told Obama in 2011, the consequences of default “would be indelible, incurable. It would last for generations.” Republicans have no leverage in a government shutdown standoff, but in a debt-limit standoff they do. That is where they should take their stand.
Lesson 3: Obama will take a face-saving way out. In Syria, Putin bested Obama, but he did not humiliate him. He skillfully maneuvered the president into a corner and then carefully guided him to a soft landing — giving Obama a face-saving way out that made it easy for him to capitulate.
Republicans need to do the same on Obamacare. The president is not going to allow Congress to defund his signature legislative initiative. And polls show that while a growing majority oppose Obamacare, Americans do not want to see a government shutdown over it. The GOP could lose not only the legislative fight but also the fight for public opinion.
Instead, Republicans should pursue an achievable goal — delay implementation of Obamacare for a year. This would be a major setback for Obama, but one that — like the Syrian disarmament accord — he could rationalize. After all, Obama has already delayed parts of his health-care law, such as the employer mandate. His union allies are complaining that elements of the law need to be fixed. His own administration has admitted that programs for enrollment in the exchanges are vulnerable to fraud and abuse. And congressional Democrats understand that if the rollout goes poorly, they will bear the brunt of the failure.
Delay provides a way out for Obama, without the humiliation. Faced with the choice of delaying or defaulting, Obama will choose delay. Then Republicans can take their case to the American people and make the 2014 midterm elections a referendum on Obamacare.
If Republicans follow the Putin strategy — force Obama to shift his red lines, box him in and then give him a face-saving way to capitulate — they can prevail. And Obama will have no one to blame but himself. One of the consequences of capitulation is that others will be emboldened to test your resolve. In Syria, Putin tested Obama’s resolve and found it wanting. Now it’s congressional Republicans’ turn to do the same on Obamacare.
The GOP needs to be smart and outmaneuver Obama — just like Vladimir Putin did.