The next year and a half is going to be painful. We elect another president in 2016 – in November, late in the year. Everyone knows what’s coming. Between now and then the news will be full of politicians trying to be likable, or to be awesome in their moral character, or awesome in their efficient and useful ruthlessness, if they’re not particularly likeable. They will be positioning themselves. Each will say that they believe just what you believe. They know what you believe? Of course they do. They have their own research teams doing private polls. Sometimes some of them actually leave the Washington beltway and talk to “real” people out there in the “real” world, or they send some of their people out there to do that sort of tedious stuff, or they may keep an eye on what’s hot on Fox News, or on MSNBC, or on what’s trending on Twitter. Sometimes they just guess. There are also those who just know that they have an infallible sense of “where the people really are” on all the issues at any given time.
Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t. They usually don’t, but even if they get it right, they still have to do the work of letting the people know that they “get it” – whatever it is. Everyone hates Obamacare and gay folks and folks among us who don’t speak English all that well, and uppity black kids giving our heroic cops grief, kids who should be shot dead, and freeloaders in general, and Muslims, and the French, sometimes. Or it’s the other way around – everyone hates the rich dudes getting all the goodies, all the time, while no one else gets a damned thing, and everyone is getting pretty damned tired of the Republican lists of who we should hate this week.
Which is it? It’s a crap-shoot. That’s why there are focus groups, but those aren’t that helpful. Those are for fine-tuning your message. You try out your basic message in the year and a half of making endless “important” speeches and in the primaries that follow those. You try things out, to see if folks love you for what you’re saying. If they do, then you fine-tune it. If they don’t, you drop it. You do your political posturing.
You hope people don’t laugh. If your party doesn’t laugh, you get the nomination. Then you’ll have to adjust it all for the general election. Those outside the base of your party tend to laugh at what thrilled the base of your party. Change your posture or you’ll lose, and in 2012, Mitt Romney had that problem. He had the deer-in-the-headlights look far too often. His posturing skills were impressive, but he always seemed to manage to strike just the right pose, for the week before, or for the wrong audience – and he was the best of the lot that year. In the last two election cycles the Republicans have had what might be called a positioning problem. Their posturing – the display of their ideas – appalled enough voters to hand the presidency to Obama, twice.
They won’t face Obama this time – a man entirely comfortable with what he believes and why he believes it. They called him arrogant. They only wish they could pull off that sort of political gracefulness, but this time they will probably face Hillary Clinton, whose every word seems calculated, as if it had been focus-group tested, five or six times. She is not that formidable, but she’s hardly the problem. You still have to try things out to see if folks love you for what you’re saying.
That’s where it gets tricky. America is far and away the most religious of all the developed nations, and Rick Santorum knows it, so this was worth a try:
Why are Bibles no longer in public schools? Don’t give me the Supreme Court. The reason Bibles are no longer in the public schools is because we let them take them out of the public schools… You say, “Well we can’t get them back in.” Yes we can. Yes we can!
How much are you willing to sacrifice? … One person got the Bibles out of the schools. We have more than one person here! But you’ve got to have the same passion in preserving our country as they do to transform it.
Yes we can? That worked for Obama, but that might not work here, and Steve Benen offers a sensible response:
Santorum doesn’t seem to fully appreciate is that no one has removed the Bible or any other religious text from schools. Right now, under current law, if a student wants to bring a religious text to a public school, he or she is allowed to do exactly that. If a group of students want to form an after-school Bible study, that’s fine, too.
All’s that required is neutrality from the school. That’s it. Students can pray, say grace in the cafeteria, read Scripture during free time, invite classmates to religious services, etc. So long as the school isn’t taking sides or getting involved in religious lessons, everything’s kosher.
Santorum, however, evidently believes that’s not good enough. What’s necessary, he suggested over the weekend, is to roll back the clock to a time when public-sector employees – the folks Santorum and his party aren’t usually fond of – took a direct role in imposing religion on children.
It doesn’t matter. This was posturing, and Santorum is going nowhere, and American Jews, and many others, might think that moving America closer to a “Christian” nation could be a bit dangerous. It was a trial balloon. The press didn’t report a sudden surge of support for Rick Santorum, the surprising new Republican frontrunner. That balloon didn’t fly.
The new Republican frontrunner, at the moment, is actually Scott Walker, who recently found that political posturing, for positioning himself as the guy who will win it all next year, is a bit trickier than it seems:
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) on Thursday said that his experience with protests over his law eliminating collective bargaining rights for public employees has prepared him to confront terrorists.
After his speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference, an audience member asked Walker how he would deal with threats like the Islamic State if he were president.
“I want a commander-in-chief who will do everything in their power to ensure that the threat from radical Islamic terrorists do not wash up on American soil. We will have someone who leads and ultimately will send a message not only that we will protect American soil but do not take this upon freedom-loving people anywhere else in the world,” he responded. “We need a leader with that kind of confidence. If I can take on a 100,000 protesters, I can do the same across the world.”
National Review’s Jim Geraghty lambasted Walker’s “terrible” response on how he would address ISIL.
“The protesters in Wisconsin, so furiously angry over Walker’s reforms and disruptive to the procedures of passing laws, earned plenty of legitimate criticism. But they’re not ISIS,” Geraghty wrote. “They’re not beheading innocent people. They’re Americans, and as much as we may find their ideas, worldview, and perspective spectacularly wrongheaded, they don’t deserve to be compared to murderous terrorists.”
The Democratic National Committee also denounced Walker’s comparison.
“If Scott Walker thinks that it’s appropriate to compare working people speaking up for their rights to brutal terrorists, then he is even less qualified to be president than I thought,” DNC Communications Director Mo Elleithee said in a Thursday statement.
Rick Perry said here that it was “inappropriate” for Walker to have compared the Madison protesters to the extremist jihadists of ISIS. When you lose the moral high ground to Rick Perry you’re in trouble – so Walker issued a statement saying that he wasn’t going to take the media’s bait. Everyone has misunderstood him. He was just saying he was a tough guy who would fight America’s enemies – but American workers are fine folks, even if they are ruining America with their demands for better pay and better working conditions, and with claiming they have the right to organize, to see if they can get both. That could destroy America, but they were fine folks, or something.
Slate’s John Dickerson adds a coda to all this talk of strength:
This is a particular gambit of governors who try to create future competency in foreign affairs based on accomplishments that don’t have anything to do with foreign affairs.
Fighting an extended war against terrorism will require focus and commitment, but the situations are so different that the skills required go well beyond mere demonstrations of strength. But that is often not the view as foreign policy is discussed in the Republican campaign, where strength is prized above all. Donald Trump received roaring applause from the CPAC audience when he offered his version of Walker’s claim. What was Trump’s policy? Strength. “Nobody would be tougher than Donald Trump,” he said appealing to that portion of the electorate hungry for a candidate who also refers to themselves in the third person. “I would hit them so hard and so fast that they wouldn’t know what happened.”
Walker said he was taken out of context, and he was. That doesn’t mean there were no questions raised by his remarks. The biggest one that remains is the one that faces all Republican candidates running on the idea of strength: What does that mean in a practical sense in a complicated world?
Who knows? This was no more than posturing, to establish position, to see if folks will cheer at what you say, or laugh, and the Republicans, as Jonathan Weisman notes, just tried that on a grand scale:
House Republicans called it streamlining, empowering states or “achieving sustainability.” They couched deep spending reductions in any number of gauzy euphemisms.
What they would not do on Tuesday was call their budget plan, which slashes spending by $5.5 trillion over 10 years, a “cut.”
The 10-year blueprint for taxes and spending they formally unveiled would balance the federal budget, even promising a surplus by 2024, but only with the sort of sleights of hand that Republicans have so often derided.
The budget – the first since Republicans regained control of Congress this year – largely reflects the four previous versions written by Representative Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin when he was chairman of the Budget Committee. But this plan may fare better than Mr. Ryan’s since Senate Republicans will be under pressure to reach an accord.
“A budget is a moral document; it talks about where your values are,” said Representative Rob Woodall, Republican of Georgia and a member of the Budget Committee. “We’ve never had the opportunity to partner with the Senate to provide real certainty.”
The House Republicans just admitted this was no more than posturing, and they were hoping for cheers not laughs, and a little help from the Senate Republicans, but that may be unlikely:
Representative Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, the committee’s ranking Democrat, saw it differently: “This takes budget quackery to a new level.”
Without relying on tax increases, budget writers were forced into contortions to bring the budget into balance while placating defense hawks clamoring for increased military spending. They added nearly $40 billion in “emergency” war funding to the defense budget for next year – raising military spending without technically breaking strict caps imposed by the 2011 Budget Control Act.
The plan contains more than $1 trillion in savings from unspecified cuts to programs like food stamps and welfare. To make matters more complicated, the budget demands the full repeal of the Affordable Care Act, including the tax increases that finance the health care law. But the plan assumes the same level of federal revenue over the next 10 years that the Congressional Budget Office foresees with those tax increases in place – essentially counting $1 trillion of taxes that the same budget swears to forgo.
And still, it achieves balance only by counting $147 billion in “dynamic” economic growth spurred by the policies of the budget itself. In 2024, the budget would produce a thirteen-billion-dollar surplus, thanks in part to $53 billion in a projected “macroeconomic impact” generated by Republican policies. That surplus would grow to $33 billion in 2025, and so would the macroeconomic impact, to $83 billion.
Dynamic scoring is wonderful. Make the cuts and the economy will soar, so count in how much it will soar – cool – and the rest is like that:
The prescribed cuts would be deep, but Republicans cast them as positive. The budget does not cut popular Pell Grants for higher education; it “makes the Pell Grant program permanently sustainable,” the document says. Spending on Medicaid may fall $913 billion over a decade once the health program is turned to block grants to the states, but House Republicans preferred to say in the plan, “Our budget realigns the relationship the federal government has with states and local communities by respecting and restoring the principle of federalism.”
The plan would cut billions of dollars from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, better known as food stamps, but that was not exactly how the budget phrased the reductions.
“This budget converts SNAP to a State Flexibility Fund so state governments have the power to administer the program in ways that best fit the needs of their communities with greater incentives to achieve better results,” the document says.
Domestic programs would be cut $519 billion below the already restrictive caps set in 2011. White House officials estimated that between the Affordable Care Act repeal and the cuts to Medicaid, 37 million people would lose health insurance, more than doubling the ranks of the uninsured.
There is no Republican plan to account for that last bit, but maybe those people don’t deserve health insurance. Here, in America, you pay for something or do without. You’re on your own. That’s freedom, and so on. Let them die. That’s their problem.
This came next:
President Barack Obama blasted the budget plan House Republicans released Tuesday, saying it underfunds critical national priorities and sets up a “robust debate” over how to help the middle class.
“Unfortunately, what we’re seeing right now is a failure to invest in education, infrastructure, research and national defense. All the things that we need to grow, need to create jobs, to stay at the forefront of innovation and to keep our country safe,” Obama told reporters at the White House as he met with Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny.
Obama’s comments, and those of other White House officials Tuesday, capture the White House strategy for trying to dominate the budget debate against Republicans: Insist on increasing defense and nondefense discretionary spending in equal amounts, and hammer Obama’s “middle-class economics” themes at every possible opportunity.
Each side is trying to establish a position:
Republicans are trying to set the tone for the debate by pointing out that Obama’s budget never balances, while the House budget plan is designed to balance within 10 years. Senate Republicans are expected to release their plan on Wednesday.
“Where is President Obama’s plan to balance the budget? He doesn’t have one,” said Cory Fritz, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner. “Republicans are the only ones offering a responsible budget that balances and paves the way for growth, jobs and new opportunities for American families.”
The White House isn’t disputing the idea that Obama isn’t trying to balance the budget. But Obama and his aides insist that it does enough for deficit reduction – and that House Republicans would have to slash spending so deeply that they’re trying to hide the impact by not scheduling any cuts for the first year. Republicans have to reduce spending by $5.5 trillion over 10 years to balance the budget.
At a news briefing, White House press secretary Josh Earnest accused House Republicans of trying to dodge the true impact of their budget by not spelling out the “draconian cuts” that would be required in the first year. He also charged that it attempts to balance the budget by “further slashing middle-class investments after 2016.”
And so it goes:
The White House hopes to use the Republican budgets to draw another round of attention to Obama’s proposals – which would increase taxes on the wealthy to pay for new tax credits for middle-class and low-income workers – and warn about the impact of the GOP budget on domestic priorities like education, an issue Obama and White House aides highlighted on Monday.
None of this has much to do with anything that will actually happen, but the Associated Press notes this:
The White House has put a spotlight on GOP missteps and infighting in recent weeks, arguing that Republicans who promised to govern effectively are falling down on the job since taking control of Congress earlier this year. Drawing an implicit contrast, Obama has been playing up his own, unilateral economic steps as a way to show he’s the one setting Washington’s agenda.
“We’re going to have a robust debate,” Obama pledged Tuesday shortly after House Republicans released their $3.8 trillion budget.
Obama sets the agenda, and that may be what really matters:
The current debate is over a budget resolution, a non-binding measure that doesn’t require Obama’s signature. Typically, Congress uses separate appropriations bills to fund various parts of the government, which makes it harder for the president to insist that Republicans pass funding for his priorities before he’ll approve funding for theirs.
As a result, the White House strategy is not so much designed to negotiate a bargain with Republicans as it is to keep Obama’s underlying economic message at the forefront while Republicans play out their own internal struggles. Such GOP divisions were on full display earlier in March when Republicans dropped their insistence on repealing Obama’s immigration directives and agreed to fund the Homeland Security Department – calling into question the GOP’s broader strategy to use spending bills as leverage against the president.
Still, the White House is taking a much more aggressive stance than it has in the past. In his budget proposal this year, Obama called for an equal surge in both domestic and defense spending, and his budget director, Shaun Donovan, told Congress on Monday that Obama “will not accept a budget” that does otherwise.
“It gives Democrats cover to say ‘no,'” said Stan Collender, a long-time budget analyst now with the Qorvis-MSL Group. “It gives them some backbone.”
Well, the Republicans have a backbone now too, except that Russell Berman at the Atlantic Online reports this:
House Republicans writing the party’s annual budget proposal this year found themselves with an impossible circle to square. Conservative spending hawks insisted that the GOP stick to the budget ceiling Congress imposed four years ago, while the party’s other hawks – those who prioritize a robust national defense above all else – demanded that the plan pour more money into the Pentagon as it fights a new war against ISIS.
“This is a war within the Republican Party,” the always-understated Senator Lindsey Graham told The New York Times. “You can shade it any way you want, but this is war.”
Seeking an armistice in this war over war spending, the new House GOP budget chief, Representative Tom Price of Georgia, turned to an old accounting gimmick that both Republicans and Democrats have decried in previous years. He allocated an additional $94 billion (18 percent more than the base defense spending of $523 billion) to a separate budget known as the “overseas contingency fund” that was first used to finance the war on terrorism after September 11. The off-the-books emergency war fund allows Republicans to boost total defense spending over the budget proposed by President Obama, who simply ignored the legal caps currently in place.
Berman notes that Politico’s David Rogers calls the House budget “a sweeping end-run around” the ceiling that Congress itself established in 2011 as part of a deal to avoid a default on the nation’s debt, so it’s all a mess, and it’s unclear if the Republican House can agree with the Republican Senate on any of this:
The fact that a budget can pass the Senate by a simple majority, without support from Democrats, will help. But if the bickering between House and Senate Republicans over homeland security funding earlier this year is any indication, the negotiation won’t be easy. Many Republicans in the Senate have never been big fans of the conservative House budgets, so Tea Party hardliners in the lower chamber likely will have to compromise – something they are often loath to do – in any deal.
Yes, those Tea Party hardliners in the lower chamber never compromise. They’re always taking maximalist positions. That’s pure posturing – displaying their plumage – to get what they want, which they never get, but they’re proud of that, because everyone knows their position on this and that, which is enough. They think people cheer. Most people laugh – and the House Republicans now have their new budget, none of which will ever be implemented – but they are proud of that too. Now people know where they stand, even if no one is exactly cheering – and their Senate counterparts are fed up with them – and the party’s defense hawks are ticked off at the deficit hawks, who return the favor. And Obama offered a budget which would increase taxes on the wealthy to pay for new tax credits for middle-class and low-income workers, which might please a whole lot of Americans but will never get anywhere with a Republican Congress – and all that Rick Santorum wants is the Bible taught in every classroom in America – and all of this is about an election a year and a half away. Perhaps it can be ignored. Even laughter seems inappropriate. It can wait.