Power Play — 28 January 2013

It appeared evident in President Obama’s inauguration speech that he has little apparent intention of working with Republicans for the next couple of years.  While the traditional inaugural address is a unifying ode to the principles that make us all Americans, this one was laden with policy ideas designed to thrill the President’s liberal admirers and repel his opponents.

Not only that, but this most political of Presidents couldn’t even muster the merest imitation of an olive branch toward his opponents.  Instead, he tossed out gratuitous barbs in reference to battles past: that entitlements “do not make us a nation of takers,” in a graceless reference to a comment by Mitt Romney; or “we cannot mistake absolutism for principle”; or my personal favorite, “treat name-calling as reasoned debate.”  This last is particularly rich from the master at mischaracterizing and demonizing his opponents.  Given the hatchet job he and his people did on Romney’s sterling character, he should have been embarrassed to utter those words.

If Obama has written off working with the GOP, then he has two complementary courses of action to take: first, to promulgate his agenda through executive action; secondly to, in the words of CBS correspondent John Dickerson, “declare war” on the Republicans.  In return, the Republicans have to coalesce around a purpose and a message.  

Obama has already moved the needle on executive action in ways that eclipse those of his predecessors.  Despite his oath of office “to uphold and faithfully execute the laws” of the United States, his Administration has been quite selective about which laws to execute, or even to defend in court.  It will not, for instance, defend the Defense of Marriage Act  before the Supreme Court, despite the fact that it remains the law of the land, leaving the House of Representatives to retain counsel to do the job of the Attorney General.

More troubling, the White House has moved to accomplish policies that specifically failed to pass through the legislature.  When the Dream Act, a measure to offer citizenship to the children of illegals if they served in the military, failed to become law, President Obama announced a program along very similar lines to be achieved by administrative action – despite the fact that he has no statutory authority to do so.   Similarly, when Cap and Trade – a plan to subject carbon emissions to a “market” mechanism by issuing limited, tradable permits to power plants – went down to defeat, the President’s EPA moved to achieve much the same ends by putting harsh limits on power plant emissions.  Effectively, by their own admission, they intend to put coal-fired power out of business.

Sometimes this overreach is brazenly illegal; occasionally the courts are available to overturn the most egregious examples.   This happened last week, when a federal appeals court ruled that the President had acted unconstitutionally when he made three recess appointments to the National Labor Relations Board and appointed the head of the new Consumer Finance Protection Agency.  It seems that the President determined unilaterally that the Senate was in recess when in fact it was still doing business.  The court wisely found that the Constitution does not allow the President to perform the Senate’s duties.

Republicans should never forget that, as Obama himself is fond of saying, elections have consequences.  Lost in the hoopla of the inauguration and all the rest is this fact: every Republican member of Congress was elected last November as well.  In fact, the GOP carried 53.8% of the districts in the country, a margin of victory greater than Obama’s 51%.  Their legitimacy as the voice of their constituents is no less than that of the President, and they were elected specifically to provide a check on the ambitions of this most progressive of Presidents.

 Republicans have done themselves much disservice over the last several years, in many cases by falling victim to the common error of zealots: letting the perfect be the enemy of the good.  So they resist compromise, they raise the stakes, they insist on massive spending cuts and hold the workings of the government to ransom.  Under the circumstances, this is perhaps understandable – we are, after all, in the midst of a spending hemorrhage of Biblical proportions, and business as usual in DC is what got us to this point.   I’d be tempted to throw a hissy fit myself.

But the fact remains that legislation is the only measure by which this crisis will be addressed, and legislation can not be accomplished single-handedly by the party who controls half of one branch of government.  Going forward, the Republicans need to be focused and disciplined like never before.  They need to agree as a bloc on not just a set of negotiating objectives but on tactics and on the negotiating team, and stand behind them. The minority party is much more effective as a phalanx, standing shoulder to shoulder, than as a series of snipers each peeling off from the main group to voice his or her dissent to the nearest willing reporter.

The House still holds the power of the purse, and it is a prodigious power.  But it must be used judiciously, and purposefully.  It is, however, the GOP’s only real counterweight to the Obama agenda.  Because of that, the White House will use all of its considerable power – note that the Obama campaign organization remains in place, its objective now to promote the President’s agenda – to demonize Republicans.  To, as it were, treat name-calling as reasoned debate.  His objective will be to completely delegitimize any opposition to his policies.  It’s pure Saul Alinsky.

In response, Republicans have to find a way to persuade the voting public that they serve the interests of the nation as a whole – not just the top taxpayers.  Conservative policies hold the only hope that we will rise above the crushing debt that on current form we will bestow on our children and grandchildren.  America needs economic growth, pro-growth tax reform, pro-growth regulatory reform, spending restraint, entitlement reform, and expanded development of our own energy resources.  

We will get none of that by following the President’s policy prescriptions.  Republicans need to make that distinction clear and convincing.

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