One effect of Barack Obama’s intention to freeze a small portion of federal spending has become apparent — conservatives have mixed emotions on how to approach it. Many have, as Jazz Shaw puts it, “heaped scorn” on the idea for reasons I’ve already outlined. Others like Bill Kristol see opportunity to turn public perception around towards better fiscal discipline:
Republicans, in a spirit of bipartisanship, should praise the president for beginning to come to his senses about too much government spending (and for acknowledging at the same time that national security spending can’t be frozen). They can point out that of course in the spirit of the spending freeze we can’t be creating new and expensive entitlements (health care). And then they can work to expand the discussion of how we’re going to deal with the deficit and the debt by re-limiting the size and scope of the federal government. Obama’s pseudo-spending freeze is a chance for Republicans to be (refreshingly!) bipartisan, and to take advantage of Obama’s willingness to move the debate over the rest of this year to a terrain—who will constrain big government?–that is good for them, and the country.
My argument is not “hooray Obama” and in fact it doesn’t have much to do with Obama’s specific proposal. My argument is that we’ve gotten a man who campaigned on expanding government to concede that his vision is not affordable. This is an enormous opportunity for those who want to see a smaller, more focused government.
For starters, any Democrat who opposes the spending freeze can now be justifably painted as reckless, out of control, unserious about budget matters and a threat to the nation’s long-term economic future. “Even President Obama says we have to freeze spending now. Why is Congressman So-and-so now calling for even more spending that we can’t afford?” There is enormous potential to drive a deep wedge between Obama and a large part of the Democratic caucus.
Second, by making this proposal, Obama is conceding a large portion of the terms of the debate. For all extents and purposes, spending increases are now off the table. Will Obama probably switch back and propose more spending in coming years? Of course. But now the GOP can point to Obama’s own proposals and own words, not just as a candidate – because we know all of those statements come with an expiration date — but the centerpiece of his first State of the Union.
These are good points, and well taken. If Republicans want to be seen as the party of reduced federal spending, then we have to support, well, reduced federal spending. Even steps in the right direction should come with positive reactions, especially since they do create a baseline of expectation that further increases will break these pledges — even if Obama attempts to explain that the increases were exempted from the freeze. It makes all of his potential big-spending programs that much more politically fraught, and Democrats supporting them that much more politically vulnerable, in the long run.
So we should say that a spending freeze on the small portion of the budget that Obama highlights is good — for a start. As Veronique de Rugy makes clear, though, the real budget problems don’t come from this portion of the budget anyway. Furthermore, the spending “freeze” is still mainly a sham that follows on a three-year period of Democratic budgeting that increased federal outlays more than the previous six years of Republican budgeting ($900 billion, possibly more, to $800 billion). Republicans need to make that point very clear and argue that while a freeze is the first step, the next step must be to roll back those federal-budget increases back to at least 2007 levels in order to actually impact the budget deficit, let alone long-term debt. That will require significant cuts in federal programs that Democrats created or inflated over the last three years while having control of the pursestrings.
What do you think? Take the poll on how Republicans should respond to the Obama freeze proposal: