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Mark Schmitt Is a Very Smart Man: His Forecast from Last Summer

Mark Schmitt, writing on July 27, 2010:

What Will a Republican Majority Do Next?: WIf, as predicted, the Republicans take control of the House, or both houses of Congress, this November, will they: 1) shut down the government? 2) propose massive budget cuts? 3) begin proceedings leading toward impeachment of President Barack Obama? 4) repeal the health-reform bill?... [T]he scholarly consensus seems to be "all of the above."

But a better question is, what will they do next, after those things don't work?

I've seen this movie before, having worked on the Hill when the Republicans took over in 1995. But they've seen it before, too, and will want to avoid making the same mistakes. (Though fewer of them have seen it than you might think -- only 55 current House Republicans were there in 1995, and 10 of them are retiring this year, meaning that if Republicans win a bare majority, 80 percent of their caucus will not have had that experience.)

Let's take their next moves in order:

First, Rep. John Boehner, who would become speaker of the House should Republicans gain the majority, has already proposed a partial shutdown of government in the form of a moratorium on enforcement of new regulations. But that's the easiest sort of gimmick for Democrats to counter, and they did so last week. Are you trying to block safety standards for cribs and bassinets, Mr. Would-Be Speaker? Boehner quickly modified the plan to grandfather in the babies, but we've probably seen the last of that scheme.

Shutting down the government usually isn't meant literally but refers to any sort of game of chicken over a legislative priority. In 1995, Congress refused to pass the usual increase in the debt limit or a continuing resolution to keep government going, in an effort to force President Bill Clinton to accept big spending cuts. It backfired. But even knowing that lesson, a new Republican majority has to find some way to show that it is the boss, so the temptation for some kind of showdown will be irresistible. But unless the fight is over something overwhelmingly popular, Republicans will wind up backing down, just as Newt Gingrich did.

The main alternative is the Andrews Air Force Base strategy -- named for the location of a 1990 meeting where Republican and Democratic leaders hammered out a budget agreement. But the words "Andrews Air Force Base" are to every Republican what the word "Munich" is to a neoconservative: Simply agreeing to meet represents appeasement, perhaps treason. "Never another Andrews" has been the one unbroken principle of congressional Republicans for the last two decades. And since much of any potential new Republican majority would be based on a conviction that the administration is illegitimate, it will hardly be a good climate in which to sit down and hash out budget numbers. So, showdown and shutdown it might be -- but there's little reason to think that will turn out well.

Next, Republicans will want to make good on plans to cut spending. But the only serious plan they have, Rep. Paul Ryan's "Roadmap for America's Future" gets no stronger endorsement than "It's a pretty good list of options" from Boehner, and Ryan himself apparently told an audience at the Brookings Institution that Republican candidates were "talking to their pollsters, and their pollsters are saying, 'Stay away from this.'" That's not surprising, since the plan privatizes Social Security, turns Medicare into a voucher program, and raises taxes on the middle class. But it's the only actual plan they've had since the beginning of the Obama administration.

Then there's impeachment. In a majority heavy with politicians who will believe they were elected solely because of the illegitimacy of the occupant of the White House, there will be subpoenas and fake scandals (and real scandals, too; no administration, however devoted to "no drama" and high ethical standards, escapes without some screw-ups and lapses in vetting) -- and articles of impeachment are sure to follow. The cynical Clinton impeachment certainly established that it is now purely an instrument of politics. But the episode also established that you can't do it without some basis -- although the groundwork was laid early, it took three years before they caught Clinton actually doing something that shocked a lot of people.... As much as some on the right may have convinced themselves that Obama was only elected president because a listserv of little-known opinion writers and professors colluded to bury bad news about him, with support on the ground from ACORN and the New Black Panther Party, that won't make the cut.

And finally, there is repealing health care. It is easier said than done, for the simple reason that Republicans are split about whether to repeal all or part of it. Trying to keep the parts they say they like (coverage of pre-existing conditions) without the parts they don't (the individual mandate), would be very expensive and not welcomed by their allies in the insurance industry, which would prefer to do the opposite. So I suspect they would just start making noise about the 10th Amendment and how the states should reject the plan. Sure, they can grind health reform into dust by refusing to fund key aspects of implementation or blocking appointments, but it won't deliver the political satisfaction of dramatic repeal.

That will leave a majority without much to show for its victory once in office. Its next steps will be critical for the future path of American politics. What do the options look like?

So let's look at the movie from 1995. After the failed government shutdown, the Republicans turned to the basic legislative agenda that had been part of the Contract with America -- notably welfare reform. (It's often credited as a Clinton initiative, but his role was to sign it, after vetoing it once.) Welfare reform and anti-crime legislation were the big substantive initiatives of the Republican agenda, and they had the advantage of being popular and acting on things Clinton had promised to do but hadn't.

The current Republican Party lacks a similar basic, manageable agenda. It's all or nothing. And the GOP no longer seems to have the capacity to get policy plans developed into legislation that is written, negotiated, and signed into law. The GOP has made a political choice to cut off a lot of its policy capacity. That's why it has no budget plans other than Ryan's super-unpopular one. It's why it didn't come up with any meaningful alternative to health reform. It's not because Republicans are dumb -- although Boehner and his allies were no match for Nancy Pelosi in a battle of tactics and determination -- but because offering an alternative would mean negotiating, finding areas of agreement and disagreement. And that sounds suspiciously like, well, Andrews Air Force Base!

And so the GOP is left with only one move, the culture war that Arthur Brooks of the American Enterprise Institute calls for in a new book, ably critiqued by the libertarian Brink Lindsey here two weeks ago. What Newt Gingrich and his crew learned 16 years ago should have been more than just "Don't shut down the government." It's that the president still retains the power to set the agenda, and going to war with the White House rarely turns out well. If there is a new Republican majority, we'll have to see how long it takes them to relearn that lesson.