The Republican faithful may be up in arms about a budget deal championed by Paul Ryan that passed the Senate yesterday, but they should be grateful. The deal is a political masterstroke that will set up the GOP for victory next November. It also shows that Mr. Ryan is smarter and more strategic than many of his fellow conservatives.
In an ideal world, conservatives would fight to the end to cut government regulations in half, shutter cabinet departments, and reduce taxes significantly. But they will not be able to make a dent in any of those priorities if they don’t have the numbers in Congress.
With the glacial legislative pace and divided Congress we now have in Washington, the only real option for Republicans to enact legislation or fulfill conservative ideals is to take control of the Senate (a net of six seats). Barring a major scandal or absolute catastrophe that backfires against the GOP — such as revisiting the suicide strategy championed by Ted Cruz and conservative nihilists to grind government to a halt — Republicans are poised to do just that next year, winning a potentially significant number of seats in the Senate, along with a majority in the House and a majority of governorships. As the respected political analyst Charlie Cook notes, 2014 is a “do or die” moment for Republicans in the Senate. The GOP needs to build a strong Senate majority because in 2016, 24 Republicans will be up for re-election, many of them vulnerable to defeat.
With that background, it’s easy to understand why Paul Ryan and John Boehner blessed this less-than-ideal agreement. Right now the only way Republicans are going to gain a majority in the Senate and hold the House in the midterms is to keep an unflinching focus on the 2014 golden goose: Obamacare. Side debates over the budget, threats of a shutdown, and brinksmanship on the debt ceiling are distractions from the most disastrous overhaul of government policy since LBJ’s Great Society. The budget deal crafted by Mr. Ryan helps to put those distractions aside for the greater good.
For long-term success, Republicans have to think short term. In effect, they need to keep the car between the two white lines at all times, firing rhetorical missiles at a program that is already forcing millions of Americans to lose their insurance and their doctors. Obama’s numbers are tanking nationally and Millennials, a key part of the Obama coalition, are beginning to breakup with their first political crush. Risking another government shutdown would be akin to veering off into a ditch and leaving the GOP a smoldering wreck on the side of the road. As for the debt ceiling, Republicans have more leeway here, but they will not be able to extract the kind of concessions that would pacify the base.
This sort of blatant political maneuvering is the kind of thing that makes many people sick about Washington. Unfortunately, it is also our reality, at least for now. The sad truth is that in an era when the Obama White House will delay enacting a host of regulations to secure votes at the ballot box, then continually lie about the merits of Obamacare after the election, and then send a tracker from an offshoot organization to a funeral to keep tabs on a GOP rising star, we have to recognize that today’s politics is best understood as nothing short of a knife fight in a phone booth. At every turn, ruthless politics is trumping sound policy. Thus Republicans need to be just as cold-blooded in their calculations and callous in their actions. That is why Ryan and Boehner and the GOP majority are on the right track, at least for now.