Senate Republican boss Mitch McConnell and his House counterpart, John Boehner, have a clear strategy and a honed communications plan to undermine the opposition. Unfortunately, the two men believe that opposition is comprised of people who think the congressional GOP should actually do things. For that reason — and the opportunity that the feckless duo are poised to botch — their Republican peers in Congress should fire them.
Remember the last time Congress mattered? In the four years after the 1994 Republican landslide, a GOP-led Congress forced a Democratic president to accept welfare reform, tax cuts, and the first balanced budget since 1969. Can you think of a significant conservative legislative accomplishment from the Beltway GOP since that era? Neither can anyone else. Nor does anyone seriously think McConnell and Boehner are up to the task of challenging Obama successfully in the final two years of the Obama era — even if Republicans win control of both houses of Congress.
Time and again, McConnell and Boehner have failed to fight wisely or even fight at all.
They have lost every major budget fight with President Obama. At the end of 2012, Obama cited his reelection mandate and demanded a tax increase. Instead of pointing out that they too had a mandate from the reelection of a Republican House, Boehner and his colleagues caved in, allowing the highest income tax rates since the Jimmy Carter era: a whopping 39.6 percent (and higher still with taxes on investments). It was 28 percent when Ronald Reagan left office.
McConnell and Boehner also lost showdowns with Obama over subsequent budget and debt-limit deadlines, and funding for unpopular Obamacare enforcement. It wasn’t wrong for the Beltway GOP leadership to lament that Senator Ted Cruz shut down the government. It was wrong for them ever to accept the Democrats’ framing of the issue that way, and then to capitulate preemptively on future showdowns. Instead of even attempting to change the phony media dialogue or hold Democrats to account for never-ending tax-and-spend, McConnell declared: “There won’t be another government shutdown; you can count on that.” Thus did congressional Republicans hand away one of their few tools: Congress’s power of the purse.
Instead, Republicans could have pointed out that they were funding all of the government except for widely hated Obamacare, and Democrats led by Harry Reid and Obama were the ones who shut the government by insisting on new Obamacare spending.
But McConnell and Boehner keep their powder dry for other targets. When asked about conservative challengers to the country club wing of the GOP, McConnell vowed in March that “we are going to crush them everywhere.” Borrowing the liberal media’s favorite bogeymen, McConnell called the Tea Party “bullies” and said he “wants to punch them in the nose.” McConnell can sound like Dirty Harry, just as long as his enemies are Beltway-approved.
However, the 72-year-old senator strikes a different tone when he addresses non-Beltway audiences. His campaign has bought Google advertising so that a search for “McConnell tea party” brings up an ad titled “Mitch Defends Tea Party.” The campaign web site to which the ad links naturally mentions none of McConnell’s attacks on grassroots conservatives.
Indeed, like the rest of the GOP establishment, McConnell doesn’t hesitate to demand favors of the activists he scorns. Whenever questioned why the congressional GOP has accomplished so little, McConnell complains that he doesn’t have a Senate majority. He then routinely tells conservative activists to go get him one — including in his March speech at CPAC, in which he promised to fight “tooth and nail” for conservatives if they won him more power.
This is doubtful. Even with Republican control of the House and a filibuster-capable Senate minority, no major federal program has been shrunk other than the military. Obama is fond of saying he wants to cut government with a scalpel instead of hatchet. In fact, he hasn’t had to use either: when Obama leaves office, Uncle Sam will spend $1.3 trillion more annually than it did when Obama was elected, despite controlling the House for only the first two years of his administration. With today’s tax revenues, all the government would have to do is go back to its 2008 spending level and it would have a balanced budget. However, explaining these simple realities seems beyond the capacity of McConnell and Boehner.
Furthermore, they are all too happy to let Congressman Paul Ryan, the House budget director, play the phony game of 10-year budgets with Obama. Inevitably in such plans, tax and spending increases occur immediately; non-military cuts are scheduled to happen in the out-years but never do. Democrats get an ever-larger government and also get to attack Republicans for cuts that will never actually happen.
The country club Republicans have a tacit deal with the Democrats. They will utter conservative sounds that play well back home and vote for conservative things when the votes do not matter much. Democrats won’t object too strenuously to legislative gestures that allow members to define themselves — as long as those gestures are irrelevant. This is how, for example, Mitch McConnell has a 96 percent rating from the American Conservative Union but few discernible accomplishments in 30 years in Congress and 12 years in leadership positions.
In return for this deal, Washington Republicans get comfortable sinecures and are grudgingly allowed into the Democratic-dominated salons of Washington — albeit through the back entrance. If your life’s goal is simply to hold office, this is an okay deal.
Unfortunately for America, this has led to an ever-larger government and a national GOP whose leadership cannot make coherent arguments even against a divided and floundering Democratic opposition. Boehner and McConnell have decided that the only issue of the 2014 elections will be Obamacare, complaints about which comprise their sole talking point. They have rejected offering specific alternatives to the Democrats that could point the way to economic prosperity, more freedom, and restoration of our prestige in the world. McConnell and Boehner are pursuing the 2014 elections in the opposite manner to Newt Gingrich’s idea-rich Contract with America that ushered in historic Republican majorities in 1994, along with a clear mandate.
The result will be a missed opportunity. Polls already show Obama’s popularity rebounding somewhat from its all-time low last December. Democrats also still have a slight edge in the generic congressional poll, despite the Obamacare fiasco. McConnell himself is stuck in the low 40s in his approval rating among Kentucky voters. Republicans will still pick up Senate seats, but under McConnell-Boehner leadership, that enlarged caucus will lack a mandate or direction, essentially remaining the party of “no” and seeming to hold power solely for the sake of power. If there are back-bench Republicans who want to chalk up real accomplishments instead, they should start by dumping McConnell and Boehner from their leadership.
Christian Whiton was a State Department senior advisor during the George W. Bush administration, and was a policy advisor in the Rudy Giuliani and Newt Gingrich presidential campaigns.