Since winning the House of Representatives in the 2010 midterm elections, Republicans have continuously employed legislative brinkmanship against President Obama’s agenda. At every possible opportunity, from the debt ceiling in 2011 to the recent fight over the fiscal cliff, the Republican Party has used potential crisis in an attempt to force President Obama to abandon his hopes of an expanded federal government and instead make major spending cuts.
The strategy of governing by crisis is an attempt by the Republican Party to control public policy without controlling the White House. It's a goal they hope to achieve by leveraging the potential damage of not resolving a particular crisis, to force President Obama to accept Republican positions or else risk national economic catastrophe. Eric Cantor summarized the strategy during the debt ceiling debate when he said, “[the debt ceiling is] a potential leverage moment when the White House and President Obama will have to deal with us.”
This strategy failed during the debt ceiling battle, as House Republicans saw their disapproval rating rise into the mid-70s, abysmal even by the standards of the perennial unpopular House of Representatives, and ultimately won very few spending cuts despite their intransigence. Along the way, America’s credit rating was downgraded and the fragile economic recovery was setback by the uncertainty the debt ceiling debate instilled in the business community.
A similar story unfolded during the recent fiscal cliff fight, as the Republicans were boxed into the untenable position of having to threaten to raise taxes on all Americans in order to try and prevent tax increases on the richest Americans. Republicans ultimately caved to President Obama, but not before embarrassing themselves by rejecting even Speaker Boehner’s proposal to accept a tax increase on Americans making over $1 million dollars in order to preserve the Bush-era tax cuts for those making over $250,000.
These defeats were inevitable given the strategy of brinksmanship the Republicans used. The president will always enjoy major structural advantages during a crisis, as Newt Gingrich learned when Bill Clinton emerged with newfound popularity from the government shutdown in 1994.
When the president speaks to America, they speak as someone elected by millions of Americans and imbued with the prestige of an office which, while not venerated as it once was, is still held in higher esteem than the speaker of the house or another legislative leader. While legislative leaders win their offices through skill at political maneuvering within their caucuses, presidents are charismatic figures with practice at stump speeches. Beyond this structural mismatch, the Republicans are harmed by the narrative that brinkmanship forces them to adopt. In order to force the White House to concede, Republicans needed President Obama to believe they were willing to damage the American economy. Staking out this position inherently alienates the vast majority of the American public, who do not want the economy to become collateral damage in political warfare, which in turn forces the Republicans to ultimately concede against the overwhelming weight of public opinion. In addition to this pressure from public opinion, crisis brinkmanship pits the Republican Party directly against the interests of the business community they claim to champion and which is essential to political fundraising. With exception of a few outliers like hedge fund manager Stan Druckenmiller, even the most rock-ribbed Republican businesspeople feared the disastrous consequences of not raising the debt ceiling or going over the fiscal cliff.
As President Obama’s second term begins, a new crisis looms in the fast approaching March 27th deadline for funding the government and avoiding a shutdown. If the Republican Party approaches this deadline using the same strategy with which they approached the debt ceiling and fiscal cliff, they will be defeated yet again and suffer major political damage while achieving almost no major policy aims.
Staunch opposition to President Obama’s appropriations plan will yield no fruit for Republicans, and the Grand Old Party should instead adopt a strategy which recognizes their unpopularity and recent electoral defeat. Rather than contesting the entire budget, Republicans should find a few areas where Obama is overreaching and standing against public opinion. They should focus their messaging around opposing these unpopular Obama ideas and try and insert some popular conservative ideas into the budget – ideas that divide moderate Democrats from liberal true-believers – such as increased funding for education in exchange for weakening teachers’ unions in failing school districts. President Obama will be forced to choose between his liberal base and moderates, while Republicans will appear reasonable and trustworthy. This would be a valuable first step in rebuilding the damage failed crisis brinkmanship has done to the Republican brand, and would damage Obama’s agenda far more than scorched-earth opposition.