New GOP strategy: Run subtle, run deep

Just three months after losing what most thought was a winnable election, the Republican Party believes it has a handle on how to proceed over the next two years as it rebuilds.  Instead of sharp public attacks on Barack Obama and brinksmanship with Harry Reid, the GOP needs to promote a positive agenda — and insist on using the proper processes of governing as a means to advance it:

The fractious GOP hierarchy seems to have finally settled on a message when it comes to President Barack Obama: take a deep breath and don’t take the bait.

Overtly in speeches and more subtly with their actions, GOP leaders and potential 2016 presidential candidates are sending a message to their party that it ought not let itself be radicalized by Obama’s ambitious and decidedly left-leaning second-term agenda.

If that sounds a bit like political jiu-jitsu, you’re on the right track.  In wrestling and grappling martial arts, combatants are trained to use their opponents’ strength and moves against them.  This is a similar strategy.  Obama has given every signal of going more sharply to his left in his second term, both with his appointments and his legislative strategies.  Rather than respond by going more sharply right, especially in rhetorical terms, the GOP will become more reasonable rhetorically while responding with an agenda that can attract the center as well as the right.

Paul Ryan calls this a “prudence” strategy:

GOP officials are calling for a more strategic mix of opposition and accommodation, though of course they wouldn’t dare call it that. Broadly put, it looks something like this: fight Obama on some issues but don’t give him easy public relations wins by getting bogged down in fiscal fights and obstructing proposals like immigration reform. And, oh yes, offer an agenda of your own.

Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan has been the most explicit about this new tack and gave it a name, or perhaps a euphemism, in a speech in Washington on Saturday at a conference staged by the National Review Institute: “prudence.”

“He’ll try to divide us with phony emergencies and bogus deals,” Ryan warned of Obama. “He’ll try to get us to fight with each other — to question each other’s motives—so we don’t challenge him. If we play into his hands, we will betray the voters who supported us — and the country we mean to serve. We can’t let that happen. We have to be smart. We have to show prudence.”

What is “prudence”?  The decision not to pick fights that one can’t possibly win, and which Republicans simply won’t take to the mat.  That’s why the GOP abandoned the idea of using the debt ceiling as a bargaining chip.  As I wrote earlier, it’s the wrong issue anyway; the issue is authorized spending by Congress, not the debt ceiling itself, and no one really believed that the GOP would force the issue of a default, or anything close to it.  They are on much better ground when it comes to spending cuts, which also have the virtue of being the right issue, and one on which a large majority of Americans agree.  Forcing a government shutdown over the budget makes a lot more sense — and is much more prudent — than risking another credit downgrade over the debt ceiling.

It also requires that Republicans present their own plan for governing rather than just saying “no” to Obama.  That applies to the spending-cut issue, too.  Obama has slammed the GOP for talking about spending cuts but proposing few specifics.  That’s because specific cuts are going to be unpopular, but eventually, the GOP has to put their cards on the table.  The time to do that is when Obama is making his left turn, when it will be easy to show how his agenda will explode spending rather than contain it.

If the GOP wants to win control of the Senate and keep the House in 2014, they will need to demonstrate that they are more ready to govern reasonably than Democrats.  That’s not really a hard lift, but they have only about eighteen months to make the case.