They came to it mostly by accident, not design, but nevertheless the Republicans have finally hit on a winning political strategy for dealing with the White House and the Democrats: Out-flank them on the left.
More impressively, they have managed to do this without abandoning conservative principle. While the issues the Republicans have championed lately are typically associated with the left, they are not inherently anti-conservative. Indeed, there are strong conservative arguments for them.
Realizing that helped the Republicans win the last two major showdowns on Capitol Hill. First, they called the White House’s bluff on the sequester and exposed the administration’s warnings of its impact as hollow demagoguery.
And now, Senator Rand Paul’s 13-hour filibuster over the administration’s policy of allowing drone strikes on US citizens on US soil finally forced the Congress (and the media) to pay attention to the issue, exposing the Democrats’ cravenness on the issue.
The common thread in both cases was that the Republicans won the fights by taking positions that have historically been associated with the left.
When the White House first concocted the sequester and its across-the-board budget cuts, they assumed Republicans would strike a deal to prevent them. Surely, the administration thought, the GOP’s right-wing hawks would never be able to stomach the sequester’s cuts to defense spending. They’ll have to cave and agree to further tax hikes.
The administration was wrong. Most Republicans gradually came to the conclusion that, yes, cutting defense was a reasonable price to pay for the other budget cuts, especially if they helped to avoid tax hikes.
Thus, the GOP took a position – cutting defense — historically associated with the anti-war left. A panicked and confused White House responded by trying to up the pressure, spreading dire warnings about the sequester’s impact. That strategy backfired when the sequester finally happened and the impacts turned out to negligible.
Similarly, the White House adopted an incredibly expansive policy regarding drone strikes on US citizens on US soil under the assumption that neither the anti-war left nor the War on Terror right would question it.
As far as the left goes, the administration has largely been proved right. The anti-war Democrats have been remarkably tame on the issue. Solidarity with the White House has proven to be more important to them, now that it is occupied by a fellow Democrat.
But Republicans began taking up the drone issue and it exploded Wednesday. First, Senator Ted Cruz tried to pin down the extremely evasive Attorney General Eric Holder on it. Then Paul mounted an old-fashioned 13-hour filibuster on the Senate floor, prevent the chamber from taking up the White House’s nominee to head up the CIA to protest the policy.
“I will not sit quietly and let [Obama] shred the Constitution. No person will be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process,” he said.
Eventually more than dozen of Republican colleagues joined him. Meanwhile – with the sole exception of Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden, who backed Paul’s filibuster – the Democrats sat sullenly on the sidelines.
When Paul offered to end the filibuster in exchange for a non-binding “sense of the Senate” resolution that “the use of drones to execute or to target American citizens on American soil who pose no imminent threat clearly violates the constitutional due process rights of citizens,” Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., rejected it.
It was brilliant theater that exposed the Democrats’ hypocrisy on the issue. As the liberal American Prospect’s Jamelle Bouie put it: “Paul’s (filibuster) was for a good cause… to spark a conversation about the administration’s overall drone policy and use of targeted killings, which has gone unexamined in official Washington.”
Doesn’t this mean that the GOP is abandoning conservatism though? Actually, no. There are sound conservative arguments for both positions. Regarding the sequester and its defense cuts, many on the small-government right have called for lifting the taboo on cutting defense and national security expenditures. They point out there is considerable pork in there too and the refusal to cut it was undermining efforts to get the overall budget under control.
Similarly, Paul’s and Cruz’s criticism of the administration’s drone-strike policy was framed by them largely as a question of constitutional principles and preserving the balance of power between the three branches – something that most Tea Party activists can get behind.
Obviously, this isn’t going to work on every issue. It’s not like the GOP would ever be able to get to the left of the administration on immigration, for example. The White House would always be willing to out-bid them on that.
But the lesson here is that the GOP should spend more time re-thinking what its principles are and how they best apply to today’s environment. There are opportunities to out-maneuver the administration without abandoning conservatism — such as the case my colleague Tim Carney has made against the administration’s crony capitalism . They just have to look for them.