Baiting The GOP

It's amazing how often politicians get goaded into stupid behavior by simple baiting -- hire a guy to follow your opponent around in a chicken suit, and pretty soon he'll agree to participate in debates that he knows he should avoid.

To put it bluntly, a remarkable amount of political behavior is explainable only by large egos, thin skin, and small penises.

Democrats on Capitol Hill have been chiding their Republican critics for being "the party of no"; for criticizing but not offering alternatives; for not having their own detailed plans and solutions; and did I mention, "the party of no."

This is an age-old, standard political posture for the majority party. The correct response is to ignore it and keep hitting with the criticisms: damn right we're saying no to X, Y and Z!

The absolute wrong response is to take the bait, and run off and draw up your own detailed plans and solutions. There's no upside to it: they have no chance of being enacted, and are thus of virtually no interest to anyone -- unless they contain flaws, stupid ideas, and/or controversial proposals. Which is likely to happen, because you're just throwing the plans together quickly, not going through a rigorous policy process.

Plus, it is much, much easier for a minority party to maintain unity and message discipline by focussing on criticisms of the majority, than on an actual positive agenda. With the former, you can all agree, for example, to criticize the Obama budget's debt creation, or to hammer at his "cap-and-trade" plan as a "cap-and-tax" plan. With the latter, well, some people in your caucus are going to think it should include some kind of carbon fuel reduction plan, and some won't, and so on.

Senate Republicans get all this, and have refused to take the bait. You would think that all of this would be pretty obvious to the GOP leaders in the House, too. But, you know, Robert Gibbs kept calling them "the party of no," and they just couldn't take it -- Gibbs wasn't actually wearing a chicken suit; and he didn't literally claim that they all have small genitalia; but it was kind of implied.

So the House Republicans have been quickly throwing together their alternative proposals, on the Big Issues of the day. Two days ago, they unveiled their alternative housing plan. Its proposals were so obviously unrelated to fixing the actual housing-market problems, that I honestly initially thought I was misunderstanding it. I was not. Even conservative analysts haven't been able to take it seriously.

Yesterday, they had a big unveiling of their alternative budget. Except that what they presented isn't actually a budget, in the sense of the word relating to the itemization of revenues and expenditures. It's a little more like the campaign literature of a candidate for high school class president: if I was in charge, I would make sure there were more books and study carrels in the library, and better food in the cafeteria, and I'd make the vending machines go back to charging 75 cents for sodas instead of a dollar, and the football team would definitely make state next year.

Everyone is now openly mocking the Republican House Leadership -- who are now backtracking and saying that this was just a blueprint for their real budget proposal coming next week. And that only makes things worse: now they've committed to producing a budget where the numbers actually add up. That's going to be awfully tough: the "blueprint" calls for deficit reduction AND massive tax cuts -- including a lowering of the top marginal tax rate from 35 to 25 percent.

The actual budget they'll have to produce next week will inevitably be chock-full of massive cuts that sound great in the abstract but really don't work well in practice. John McCain made this mistake on the campaign trail last year. He proposed an across-the-board freeze in discretionary spending. Then he had to add "except the military" to avoid looking weak on defense. Then someone asked whether the freeze meant that he was abandoning his promise to Michigan and other states for increased worker training funding, so he had to exempt that. Pretty soon the list of exemptions was so long he had to stop mentioning the whole freeze idea because it was sounding so ridiculous.

Next week, when they come out with their budget -- the one with numbers this time -- it's going to be a mess. It's going to get plenty of attention, because of yesterday's botch-up, and undoubtedly lots of criticism; inevitably many Republicans will quickly back away from specific portions of it; they'll start blaming each other for making such a mess (that in-fighting has reportedly already begun); and they will look foolish and entirely irrelevant to the serious business being handled by the Democrats.

Some of you may remember that I once wrote that if you asked who the voice of opposition is on Beacon Hill, the answer would be Speaker Sal DiMasi (or Governor Patrick, depending on who you thought was the actual power) -- not the Republicans. Things seem to be headed that way on Capitol Hill now: the GOP isn't even able to make its opposition and criticisms relevant, and so they will increasingly just be ignored.

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