Form Over Substance

“I was thinkin’, it really don’t matter if I lose this fight.  It really don’t matter if this guy opens my head, either.  ‘Cause all I wanna do is go the distance.  Nobody’s ever gone the distance with Creed, and if I can go that distance, you see, and that bell rings and I’m still standin’, I’m gonna know for the first time in my life, see, that I weren’t just another bum from the neighborhood.”

            —Sylvester Stallone as Rocky Balboa in Rocky


One of the better columnists out there is Charles Krauthammer, and it is a rare occasion indeed when I dare to disagree with him.

This is one of those times.

In his latest piece at Jewish World Review (h/t to my buddy Brutus), Krauthammer argues that there is no real fundamental split in the GOP; that the divide is simply a matter of tactics, rather than one of substantive philosophy on policy.  One camp, as Krauthammer views it, is committed to fighting the President and the Democrats on shrinking government and reducing spending, even though they only hold a majority in one half of one branch of government.  The other camp—that of the GOP establishment (Speaker Boehner, Minority Leader McConnell, et al.)—views resistance as futile, and therefore eschews the fight in favor of capitulation.

Krauthammer takes the view that the latter position is the only practical alternative.  Either way, he says, the GOP is going to lose on the budget/debt issue, and if they press the issue and stick to their guns they’ll not only lose but take the blame for being obstructionists.  So rather than lose and come away with egg on their face, he argues that the pragmatic approach is to accept that you can’t govern from this position, and offer a watered-down short term proposal that cannot be refused.

In other words, roll over and punt.

I hold Mr. Krauthammer in the highest regard, but respectfully I could not disagree more on this one.  First, the situation as he describes it in fact does reflect a fundamental substantive split.  Either you hold to a conservative fiscal philosophy or you don’t.  If you do, that’s not subject to compromise (or, in this case, all-out abandonment) simply because 51% of the country (or, more to the point, 51% of the votes that got counted) elected Obama.  There are those in Congress who actually do stand on conservative principles; the GOP establishment simply isn’t among them.

Second, Krauthammer’s position that even if you resist you’ll end up losing depends on his assumption that at the eleventh hour even the resistance will be forced to cave in.  Why?  If you’re going to resist, resist.  If they have the votes to pass something over your objection, let them do so; then they own it and you can rub their noses in it before the public when it fails, something you can’t do if you’ve capitulated, because they’ll cast the policy as bipartisan.  If they don’t have the votes, then you’ve won by stopping a bad policy—it’s not a loss if nothing happens.  It’s OK for Washington to stop.  A legislature doesn’t HAVE to legislate.

Third, I think Krauthammer may be being a little naïve here.  There is no middle ground compromise to be made, and no offer that cannot be refused.  Obama and the Democrats have made it clear that they are not going to negotiate on anything.  It is a fool’s errand to try it.  Look back to the original debt limit discussions in 2011: the entire thing consisted of Boehner making revised offers and Obama telling him to “spit higher.”  The result, of course, was the “compromise” that led to the current problems with the debt ceiling, budget sequestration, and the “fiscal cliff.”  That’s just how it’s going to be with this President if you try to meet him in the middle.

Finally, Krauthammer’s concern over the GOP “taking the blame” is misplaced.  What is the nature of this “blame”?  Public opinion.  But what is that, really?  Nationwide polling asking about a global opinion of the GOP as a party is almost totally irrelevant, particularly now that we’re out of the Presidential election cycle.  Nobody in Congress, particularly in the House, represents the nation, or Gallup; the President is the only one elected on that scale.  Each member of the House is elected by the 750,000 or so citizens of his or her district.  The job of a Representative is precisely that: to represent the interests of those people, and no one else.  It’s not their job to compromise or go along to get along.  And it’s certainly not their job to concede the interests of the people in their district simply because they are not part of a governing majority.

And this is the real rub with Krauthammer’s argument (and it particularly irritates me, because he knows better).  He’s effectively accepting the premise that this country is a true democracy, that we operate on an absolute majority rule basis, and that anything 50%-plus-one wants, they get without opposition, dissent, or even discussion.  That, of course, isn’t the way our government was designed to operate, and in fact Krauthammer’s premise defeats the very point of that mechanism.  Rather than a true democracy, we have a constitutional republic, where power is distributed among three co-equal branches of government, and the legislative power is divided yet further into a bicameral (two houses) body.  The system is specifically designed to promote debate and opposition, and to protect the minority from the whim of the majority.

But all of that is lost if you simply punt because it’s more pragmatic to recognize that you can’t pass anything of your own when you’re in the minority.  If you’re not going to oppose when you’re in the opposition, then why bother showing up in the first place?   We could just say that everything was decided on November 6, and now the Democrats get to do whatever they want for the next two years; they can legislate via teleconference among their own caucus, and we don’t even need to convene Congress.

I’ve been making this point from the very beginning of Chasing Jefferson.  You don’t fight only the fights you can win; you fight the fights that need fighting.  You stick to your guns, and if you go down, you go down swinging.  Rather than worrying about being blamed for obstructionism, the Republicans need to re-learn how to present their case to the public.  The current leadership can’t do it.

The Democrats are going to do what they’re going to do.  The GOP doesn’t need to accommodate them.  It needs to be able to explain that, explain who owns it, and explain the cause-and-effect when it goes bad.


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