Monday, April 11, 2011

Budget Strategy

I think I’ve mentioned that I’m not an expert at strategy. I like to deal with principles. When people like Dick Morris and Karl Rove relish in the game of playing for power, I roll my eyes and think, “Why can’t we just do what is right and let the chips fall where they may?” But I recognize that there is a need for political strategy—as a process of getting the principled message out and persuading people to adhere to the principles. When the opposition controls much of the media, just putting out the message isn’t enough. It must be put out where it can be heard in a context that will allow open minds to hear and consider it.

So I’m thinking about the current budget debate and wondering whether strategists do indeed know more than I do. With control of both houses of Congress and the White House prior to the November 2010 election, democrats failed to do their basic duty and put forth a budget for 2011. So the recent near government shutdown was about only what is left of the 2011 fiscal year. The Republican-led House passed the budget a couple of months ago, I believe with about $61 billion in cuts—a tiny fraction of what I think the cuts should be. Democrats in the Senate were refusing to budge beyond a miniscule (by comparison) $6 billion or so. They countered with unbelievable whining like, “They want to kill women.” Seriously. (See it here.) 

I personally would have enjoyed a government shutdown. We could use a holiday from government intrusion. Government shuts down 10 holidays a year, and no one much notices. There have been many shutdowns over the years; Carter presided over several. Essential services continue. But our ridiculous commander-in-chief threatened to refuse to pay military personnel—who have always been considered essential and have never been included in a government shutdown. I think that was blustery posturing, and we could have fought it. Do Americans really think that the Republicans want to shut down pay for the military? Obama is not Clinton—his lies are clumsy. Thirty-nine percent of the population already strongly disapproves of his job as president (while only around 16% strongly approve). Even the fawning media couldn’t sugarcoat the president’s threat to servicemen and their families. So I wanted everyone on the side of fiscal conservatism to stand firm.

The result was a compromise of around $39 billion in cuts, with no government shutdown. Really, did we need to compromise?

On the other hand, strategists will say that the bigger battles loom ahead: refusing to raise the debt ceiling once again, putting forth a more reasonable 2012 budget, and pressing for Ryan’s plan to cut $5.8 trillion in spending by 2021.

I like what I’ve seen of Ryan’s plan. In Charles Krauthammer’s piece this week, he debunks the demagoguery; it’s worth a read: here. Ryan’s plan has essentially no chance of passing with a Democratic-led Senate, which literally equates any cut in spending to a cut in their power. Putting this plan out there now makes it part of the debate going into the 2012 election. With nothing to counter it but a promise to print more money no matter how it affects the economy, it is at least something solid Republicans can stand strong with.

I like things simple: we need to cut the budget—drastically—so why not cut it to what is actually allowed by the Constitution? Then the only question is, do we do it incrementally or suddenly? As drastic as Ryan’s plan is said to be, it looks incremental to me. But with a better Senate and White House, at least it might be a step in the right direction that we can actually take. I would feel better about it if someone who actually understands strategy can convince me we’re making progress.

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