I hate to rain on somebody’s parade, especially somebody I’ll probably support in November, but Republicans do not have much to crow about as they emerge from yesterday’s Iowa caucuses.
Granted, the process has already winnowed two uninspiring candidates, Tim Pawlenty and Herman Cain, from the field vying to challenge President Obama. This leaves Mitt Romney, who can feel pretty good about his prospects as he heads into next week’s New Hampshire primary, and six other hopefuls who all lack the money and organization to stay with Romney through the primary marathon to come.
For Republicans who really care about unseating Obama, Romney is not a bad choice, even if he lacks the raw appeal of charismatic (but unvetted) non-candidates like governors Chris Christie of New Jersey or Mitch Daniels of Indiana. A former Massachusetts governor, Romney can put Northeastern states like Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania in play. This should force Obama to play defense on what should be his strongest turf, and should drain his resources from battleground states like Florida, Ohio and Wisconsin, which the president must carry to have any realistic chance of being re-elected.
Many Republicans feel confident about their chances in November. I agree that the Electoral College map is stacked against the incumbent and should give him an uphill fight this year. But Obama has an ace in the hole that could level the playing field, allowing voters to forget his colossally wasteful spending, terrible economic record and nasty rhetoric.
Obama’s secret weapon is the Republicans’ own determination to shoot themselves in the foot on two of the biggest issues of the campaign: taxes and health care reform.
There are many valid reasons to attack the Affordable Care Act that Obama and fellow Democrats rammed into law in 2010. It will drive up costs that are already out of control by increasing demand for care without making care more abundant or efficient. It will ruin the economic foundation of health insurance by allowing millions of people to pay relatively insignificant penalties while they wait until they get sick before purchasing insurance. It will discourage businesses from hiring U.S. workers, who must either receive health coverage or trigger penalties against the employers. The bill will raise taxes to pay for the substantial new subsidies for low- and middle-income insurance buyers, who will be sicker than average because, again, they won’t need to buy coverage while they are still healthy since insurers will be required to accept all applicants.
All of these arguments are winners for GOP candidates. But do they make these arguments? Nope. Instead, they twist themselves into verbal knots to attack one of the law’s more logical requirements – that all Americans who can afford to do so either buy health insurance or pay a penalty.
Romney is worst-suited of the candidates to take this position because, as Massachusetts governor, he supported and signed a state law with the same provision. Erstwhile top challenger Newt Gingrich is running away from his record as a supporter of Romney’s Massachusetts law. Former Sen. Rick Santorum was out of Congress when the federal law was passed, but Santorum’s stock in trade is arguing that the government should be telling Americans how to behave in all manner of private affairs, because that’s what his religious beliefs call for. Rep. Michele Bachmann and Texas Gov. Rick Perry have the same problem. Jon Huntsman’s problem is that nobody in his own party really cares what he thinks about this issue or any other, even though he is, to my mind, the most thoughtful candidate in the field. (For the record, Huntsman has attacked Romney for introducing a forerunner to “Obamacare,” as Republicans like to call it.) Only Sen. Ron Paul, who apparently doesn’t believe the government should ever tell anyone to do anything, possibly including stopping at red lights, comes to his position against the dreaded health insurance mandate with clean intellectual hands.
But the Republican faithful, the rank-and-file foot soldiers of the party, have somehow persuaded themselves that the big problem with the Obama health reform is the mandate. Are they correct that Congress lacks constitutional authority to make everyone buy health insurance? We may find out sometime in the next six months, since the Supreme Court has taken up the matter. But there are almost certainly four solid votes on the Court’s liberal wing to uphold the law. This means, at best, opponents can hope for a narrow majority in their favor. A 5-4 ruling to strike down the statute won’t necessarily persuade swing voters in the presidential race that Obama was wrong, and anything less is going to be seen as a victory for the president and, in effect, an endorsement of the law and its terrible policy choices.
If they want to win in November, Republicans need to recognize that their challenge is not to motivate hard-core GOP voters, who will oppose Obama no matter what. Their task is to persuade independent voters to show up and vote for new leadership. They won’t do that with arguments that ring false because the candidates making those arguments have taken opposite positions in the past, only to swing with the political fashion of their party.
Republicans did pretty well on taxes through most of 2011, only to fall apart with the last-minute two-month extension of the president’s Social Security tax cut. The president broke the myth of the Social Security trust fund. To serve his own political interests, he is draining hundreds of billions of dollars from the program, and, in the process, making the retirees who are an important part of his own political base extremely nervous. By the time Obama is done milking the FICA cash cow, the program will be reduced politically to what it always has been actuarially: a cash-transfer welfare program.
Republicans ought to let him go right ahead and do this. If he asks for a 2-percentage-point cut in FICA taxes, Republicans ought to offer him 3 points, or 4, and extend it to employers as well as employees. Will this drive up the deficit? You bet, but Republicans can immediately counter with offsetting spending cuts. If you want more Social Security, you get less defense, or environmental protection, or antitrust enforcement.
The bottom line of this exercise would be to make it crystal clear that the Treasury does not have a magic fountain of money, unless you count foreigners’ willingness to keep lending trillions as our national debt mounts to monstrous levels, or unless you assume the Federal Reserve will ultimately print the cash to make all this debt go away, along with what’s left of the dollar’s value. Obama would not turn us into the next Greece, which is too small to really matter in the scheme of things. He would turn us into the next Italy, on steroids, with a debt big enough to bring the whole financial world crashing down and a character small enough to actually do it.
If presented with this option, voters will probably choose to leave a financially viable nation to their grandchildren instead.
But Senate Republicans decided their Christmas vacation was the top priority, so they helped pass the Democrats’ two-month extension, and overshadowed the House’s earlier vote for a full-year continuation of the FICA tax cut, which the House paid for with cuts the Democrats did not want to accept. Thus, Republicans got on the wrong side of an issue that should have been their strong suit. Now we have to watch as they struggle to wrest control of the Social Security tax debate back from Obama and his party. It won’t be pretty.
A few Republican candidates will tell us how well they did in Iowa last night. Don’t believe it. Unless they stop shooting themselves in the foot, no Republican candidate is going to run a particularly good race this year.