Gingrich: GOP can't sustain threats on debt ceiling

Newt Gingrich thinks that the House Republican caucus is gearing up for the wrong fight. On CBS This Morning, the former Speaker noted the danger of fighting over US credit, which would prompt the business community to oppose the GOP and end up isolating Republicans on the overall budget fight.  Gingrich insists that Republicans have much firmer ground in March, when the sequesters hit and the continuing resolution expires:

Republicans in Congress have picked the wrong fight in threatening default on the government’s loans if President Obama continues to push raising the debt ceiling, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., said today on “CBS This Morning,” arguing, “in the end, it’s a fight they can’t sustain.”

“No one is going to default,” he said. “No one is going to allow the United States to not pay its bills. No one is going to accept the economic costs. It rallies the entire business community to the president’s side.

“And the fact is,” Gingrich continued, “the Republicans have two much better arenas in which to fight over spending: They have a continuing resolution which funds government, which comes up at the end of March. And they have the sequester, which automatically cuts spending unless it’s dealt with. And those two fronts they can fight, and they have much less resistance from the average American, and it’s much harder for the president to oppose them.”

Gingrich makes the same point here as I do in my column today for The Week.  Part of developing a winning strategy is picking the right ground for a fight, and the debt ceiling is simply not it.  If a showdown is in order, a government shutdown makes more sense — as it attacks the actual driver of deficits and debt, federal overspending:

By contrast, a government shutdown — or at least the threat of one — makes more sense. For one thing, it actually addresses the problem of government spending by refusing to allocate any more funding, rather than refusing to authorize borrowing for spending already approved. The current continuing resolution runs out on March 27, at which point most functions of the federal government have to stop without approved funding from Congress. John Boehner promised his caucus that he would insist on a return to normal order in the budget process; this would be a perfect time to demand a budget from the Senate instead of getting caught up in White House negotiations intended to bypass the normal budget process yet again. A refusal by Harry Reid would give House Republicans an opportunity to pass a budget without the Senate — and then insist that it’s Reid who shut down the government by violating the Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act of 1974.

Of course, Republicans remember all too well that they attempted to force a budget victory in 1995 over Bill Clinton with a government shutdown, and ended up losing the political war. That case, however, differed from today in a couple of significant ways. The deficit was much smaller, although still politically potent, and Clinton had already started to triangulate after the 1994 midterm fiasco for Democrats. The budget standoff looked much less like a crisis than a public-relations stunt for the new Contract with America majority. In this case, the crisis is obvious and very potent politically, although not certain by any means to favor Republicans. It will take a great deal of effort to get the messaging started immediately for a March 27 standoff over budgeting for the rest of FY2013, an effort that Republicans haven’t done much in the last two weeks to push.

The GOP should forget the ghosts of 1995 and force the showdown over the real issue — out-of-control spending. At this point, after the beating Republicans took in November and the disarray after the New Years Day fiscal-cliff deal, they don’t have much to lose, especially by fighting on the high ground and forcing Democrats to defend inflated spending.

The House should get as much in concessions as possible in return for a debt-ceiling increase to take the US through the end of the year.  After all, Congress already authorized the spending — and that’s the actual problem.  Republicans can tackle that problem directly when the continuing resolution expires by passing a full budget to complete FY2012 and dare Harry Reid to refuse to do the same.  That will also point out the other real problem: a lack of normal order on budgets since April 2009.

Matt Lewis also has concerns over holding the debt ceiling hostage, on the basis of public relations alone:

1. A good political fight pits Republicans against Democrats. When Republicans win, Democrats lose (and vice versa.) Either way, the American public wins when both sides compete for their favor (as I’ve noted before, the GOP should be engaged in transactional leadership — but the transaction should appeal to the public’s better angels.)

But in this scenario, the potential victim in this game of chicken over the debt ceiling would be The American Public. And it would be done ostensibly by the hands of Republicans. That would surely be the perception at least. (Note: I realize continuing to ignore the debt crisis also hurts the American public — but, fair or not, that seems less immediate. I’m also aware of the nuances regarding the term, “default.”)

2. As Thatcher’s maxim goes, “First you win the argument, then you win the vote.” By using the debt ceiling to pressure Obama to cut spending, Republicans are — even in the unlikely circumstance that they should “win” — depriving the country of a national conversation about debt and spending.

Given the choice, the media will always focus on the political aspects of the “government shutdown” over the substantive points.

On the other hand, David Frum argues that I’ve picked the right battleground, but the wrong time:

The time to begin the budget cuts is after the United States resumes full employment and normal economic growth, not before.

And the means to do so is via the normal budget process, after a successful election. Forcing spending cuts by shutting down government services is not only a breach of the “rules of the game,” it is also tactically reckless. The Republican party made a case for a vision of government in November. That case was rejected, and painfully. A Democratic president was elected. A Democratic Senate was returned. And while the Republicans held the House, they lost seats and received fewer total votes. This is not a mandate for anything big and bold. This is the time for defensive play, for rethinking, rebuilding and retooling.

Unfortunately, we haven’t had a normal budget process in over 1350 days, thanks to the Democratic Senate leadership’s refusal to engage in it.  If Republicans have to wait for that to have a budget fight, it simply will never occur.

Update: Guy Benson has a lengthy column at Townhall staking out the same ground as Newt, Matt, and me on the issue, which should be read in full.  Here’s his advice:

(1) Give the president a sizable, no-strings-attached debt limit increase.  Sooner rather than later.  (I recognize this is a very bitter pill to swallow).  In doing so, repeatedly emphasize two points.  First, that Republicans went along with Obama’s frivolous and counter-productive tax-hike-on-the-rich scheme to avoid the fiscal cliff, receiving virtually nothing in return.  Considering the stakes for tens of millions of middle class Americans, this was the responsible choice — even though it was an extremely unpleasant ideological concession.  (Lesson: “Revenues” and “fairness” are now on the books, and thus off the table in upcoming debates).  Second, that the president’s last request for a $2.1 Trillion debt ceiling increase came just a year-and-a-half ago, yet Washington’s rapacious spending habits have already exhausted every last dime of those funds.  (Lesson: Spending is the problem).  Yes, this would essentially constitute two consecutive episodes of Republicans acquiescing to Obama’s demands, with little to show in return.  Yes, this would anger some in the base, and it could prompt threats of primary challenges, etc.   But it’s only act one.

(2) Allow the $1.2 trillion sequester to go into effect in early March.  Don’t negotiate over it, despite its very troubling defense cuts.  Remember, it’s the delayed byproduct of 2011’s debt deal, and Democrats should not be allowed to pretend that it’s part of a “new” agreement on spending reductions.  The Super Committee failed.  The White House suggested these automatic cuts, assuming that they’d never happen.  They are imperfect, real, and overdue reductions in spending.  “Shoot” that “hostage” of the president’s own making.

(3) Throw down over the expiration of the current continuing resolution (CR) in late March.  The CR is the latest in an interminable string of temporary measures to fund the federal government in the absence of “normal order” — ie, passing budgets and appropriations bills.  This is the way things are supposed to work, but haven’t for nearly four years.  At this stage, Republicans will have cooperated with President Obama by reluctantly indulging his tax “fairness” fetish and by staving off “default” by ignoring Senator Obama’s 2006 advice on the debt ceiling.  Sure, the possibility of a partial government shutdown would still be in the air, but that’s a “hostage” that could also plausibly be “shot.”  Republicans could aggressively point to their previous concessions while drawing their line in the sand at this lower-stakes, but still meaningful, crossroads.  The expiration of yet another stop-gap federal funding gimmick would present an ideal opportunity to enter a full court press on the Democrats’ serial budget abdications, with budget season fast approaching.  This effort would be advanced against the backdrop of the president’s recent and wholly inadequate “soak the rich” tax package, while another high profile and unsettling increase of the national debt limit would remain fresh in the public’s collective mind.

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