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Phillip Klein: Setting realistic expectations for Obama's second term

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Politics,Beltway Confidential,Philip Klein,Politics Digest

As I’ve alluded to in previous posts, intra-conservative conflicts over the proper Republican approaches to the “fiscal cliff” debate and the “debt ceiling” impasse have ultimately come down to a broader question: what should conservatives realistically expect from Republicans in President Obama’s second term?

During the primaries and throughout the general election, my position was always that conservatives should try to elect as many small government Republicans to the House and Senate as possible, in the hopes that they could push a Republican president to actually govern as a conservative. In fact, after Mitt Romney won the nomination, I wrote an ebook based around this premise. Had Romney become president, I argued, the goal of conservatives should have been to pressure him to overhaul the tax code, reform entitlements and repeal and replace Obamacare with free market reforms. If he didn’t make progress on these fronts – even with a GOP Congress – I would have been part of the chorus of voices blasting Republicans for abandoning small government principles and being all around useless as a political party.

After Obama was re-elected and Democrats maintained control of the Senate, however, I adjusted my views of what was possible in the next four years. But many of my fellow conservatives have not.

To be sure, I think the fact that Republicans maintained control of the House still means that they can and should prevent sweeping new expansions of government from being enacted. But I don’t think that they can achieve meaningful reforms to entitlements, the tax code or health care. In tangible policy terms, the existence of a Republican House means that Obama’s second term isn’t going to see a repeat of the type of big bills we saw last time – an $800 billion economic stimulus, financial regulatory reform and Obamacare. House Republicans have the power to block gun control, “cap and trade,” and new stimulus legislation. But they aren’t going to get any policies passed that reduce the nation’s long-term spending trajectory in a meaningful way.

This general frame of thinking puts me at odds with a lot of conservatives who I’d probably agree with when it comes to long-term policy goals. To these conservatives, Republicans could advance more of their agenda if they were willing to stand firmer for longer, even if it meant allowing income taxes to rise by an additional $3.7 trillion when it came to the fiscal cliff or flirting with economic chaos that would ensue if Congress were never to raise the debt limit.

In order to achieve sustainable policy victories, however, conservatives first need to win the argument and win elections. If Republicans were in charge of Washington, it would be worth taking whatever political risks were necessary to implement bold reforms. But is it really worth risking a backlash against small government ideology in order to win marginal concessions from Obama?

At an otherwise dismal time for conservatives, the union reforms in Wisconsin have been a rare success story. But those reforms weren’t achieved by Republicans taking over one chamber of the state legislature and dictating terms to a liberal governor. They were achieved because a courageous conservative, Scott Walker, won an election and was willing to stand up to powerful public sector unions and there was a critical mass of conservatives in both sides of the legislature willing to support him.

By all means, Republicans should fight to keep spending as low as possible and block new efforts to expand the reach of government. And they should continue to present a vision for reform in bills that they can pass through the House. Let Obama propose his outrageous budget, and counter with a House-passed budget that actually addresses the nation’s spending problem. Haggle over the numbers and details, attack the Senate for their failure to pass a budget, and then cut the best deal possible. Laying out a governing agenda would give them something to build on if they can retake the Senate in 2014 and gain the presidency in 2016. And it would avoid the spectacle of trying to make the case for small government at a time when financial markets are freaking out because the debt ceiling hasn’t been raised and when there’s no hope of enacting their preferred policies anyway.

Conservatives should recognize that even though they can block key items of the liberal agenda with control of the House, they cannot advance the conservative agenda with Obama as president and Harry Reid as Senate Majority Leader. With this in mind, it’s short-sighted to advocate a strategy whereby Republicans dig in their heels at every opportunity in exchange for a few crumbs of concessions from Obama, at best. This strategy risks lasting damage to the conservative brand that will prevent real reform.

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Philip Klein

Commentary Editor
The Washington Examiner