George McClellan was the dashing commander of the Army of the Potomac at the start of the Civil War, whom the troops loved but whom Abraham Lincoln scorned as timid and quick to retreat.
Perhaps now even Steelers fans will understand why I have taken to calling the House Republican the McClellan Republicans –always preparing to fight but never quite getting to the political battlefield that is the great spending debate.
Speaker John Boehner, GOP Leader Eric Cantor and GOP Whip Kevin McCarthy have been in their saddles since November 2, and even though their formal power only arrived in January, they have had more than four months to prepare the debate over the CR, the debt ceiling and the FY 2012 budget.
If they prepared at all they prepared poorly, concentrating on symbolic gestures and focusing on procedural niceties like “open rules” rather than closing with the Democrats and forcing the first of the many showdowns ahead on spending. The phony cuts assembled thus far –the GOP talking points say $8 billion has been sawed from the federal budget—have not resulted in a single lay-off or program closure. One could look for months and see no effect from these paper cuts.
The Tea Party volunteers and the GOP activist base worked all through 2010 to provide the House GOP leadership with an army of freshmen, but now the Speaker refuses to use it. In early 1862 Lincoln remarked about his ever-preparing, never-moving general that "[I]f General McClellan does not want to use the army, I would like to borrow it for a time.” This is where the Tea party patriots find themselves now, and not just them but millions of voters who see in Chris Christie, Scott Walker and John Kasich the model of political leadership they expected and who are pressing for the Speaker to get to the inevitable confrontation.
There are three big battles ahead and the first is over the Continuing Resolution. The GOP has decisively lost rounds one and two in the CR battle, and all the talking points in the world won’t change that. The GOP has achieved nothing in the way of meaningful spending reductions, and when the vast additional spending splurge of late 2010 is factored in, we are far further behind the fiscal eight ball than when the mandate to cut spending was secured in November.
There are five key elements on the GOP agenda in the CR showdown --$61 billion in cuts (watered down from the Pledge’s promise of $100 billion), the defunding of Planned Parenthood and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and legislative blocks (called riders) prohibiting the HHS and EPA from writing Obamacare and carbon emission rules respectively. This is what the Speaker must get from the Democrats or he will have lost the first showdown with the Democrats, and with it, the confidence of the base. The Speaker does not appear to care much about this as he has been indifferent to communicating with voters who don’t watch Meet the Press, as has been Eric Cantor, who has delegated what little attempt to message as has been made to Wisconsin’s Paul Ryan and California’s Kevin McCarthy, but they too have all but vanished from the airwaves and the virtual debates.
There is no messenger because there is no message. There is no message because there is no plan except "Wait until the 2012 budget," which isn't a plan for anything except the loss of momentum and mandate.
On Tuesday scores of Republicans deserted the leadership over the new CR and its absurd claim of real cuts –you know, the sort that don’t bleed anyone. The leadership rushed forward with a fake bill to defund NPR that has no chance to pass the Senate and which is quite obviously intended as a sop to the fly-over voters who are easily fooled by the Beltway sharpies. More gimmicks no doubt are right around the corner as the GOP maneuvers to avoid anything that the MSM might label a government shutdown and criticize the Republicans for.
The House GOP is truly fighting the last war, not realizing that the Clinton-Gingrich battle of 1995 might as well have occurred in 1895 so much have circumstances changed.
The U.S. is spending $3,600 billion a year, with $1,600 billion of it borrowed. The House GOP is quivering at the prospect of a showdown over forcing a cut of $6o of the $3,600 billion!
The House members return to their districts next week, and they deserve the scorn they will receive. They elected and empowered the leadership, and they have allowed the leadership to imperil all they worked for via timidity and Beltway politics, a monumentally incompetent communications strategy, and a “I got my chairmanship back!” mentality that quickly saw the old bulls take back the perks and push the new members aside with promises of reform down the road.
It has been a complete fiasco to date, and threatens to get worse. Jim Jordan the chair of the Republican Study Committee has a caucus of 177 members. He should use it to fashion and enforce demands. It is very hard to change leadership in the middle of a Session, but these freshmen members must know their jobs are on the line and the strategy adopted by the leadership is alienating voters and especially their volunteers and contributors, and making them look like fools or incompetents.
They don't have to win, but they do have to at least try to win. Thus far they haven't, and the political toll is immense.