Discussing the Political Environment Surrounding the 2011 Budget Debate

For less than 40 billion dollars, which amounts to a little more than one percent of the Federal Budget, Washington was on the verge of shutting down. While it should be no surprise a Republican majority fueled by the Tea Party would follow this path, the fact this spectacle did nothing to address the actual Budget crisis in any significant way, yet it still could do great damage, is rather troubling. Quite frankly, the whole display lacked the substantive policies we actually need. Politically speaking, the civil war within the GOP did, however, force John Boehner to expose his flank to Democrats, who have more or less taken a victory toward 2012 at a minimized cost to critical social programs. That said, the entire scenario has highlighted the faults of Washington insiders.

All first term presidents require a learning curve. The Obama Administration has had one catastrophic crisis after another to cope with, so blame for its shortcomings will be muted in the history books. President Obama’s almost naïve faith in the legislative process and bipartisan compromise will not be excused so readily. Congress is responsible for writing laws and budgeting federal dollars. Unfortunately, over the last eighty or so years, our Legislative Branch has often deferred its power to the Executive Branch, because its members are unwilling to rise up as national leaders to address modern issues in a timely fashion. As such, I hope Obama has finally learned he must constantly hold the collective hand of Congress from the very beginning to make certain it does its job, if he wants the Legislature to actually get something done.

Sounding much like previous budget debates, the current campaign to erase the National Deficit is polarized along party lines. On the right, the “spend and don’t tax” Republicans want to cut domestic social programs without raising taxes or trimming their spending priorities. On the left, the “spend and maybe tax” liberals would rather not upset their base with cuts, or taxes, until they feel more politically secure, if then. Unlike past debates, Tea Party activities, who seem very unhappy with the fact a deal did not exact 100 billion dollars worth of cuts, forced the GOP to take the Budget head on. Republican Congressman Paul Ryan’s very sobering 2012 Budget proposal was exactly what the Country needed to see as it shows what we can afford without increasing tax revenues, but this is also what Democrats needed from the Republicans.

Amongst a wave of Tea Party activists and Democratic apathy, the main defense of the Democrats in 2010 was to blame Republicans for impeding, and not participating in, government. Using their minority status and a thorough filibustering campaign, the GOP was able to capitalize on voter outrage over the economy to politically “balance” government. To somewhat appease Tea Party members, however, the GOP has largely nullified its best weapon against the Democrats thanks to Ryan’s plan. So long as the Obama Administration, which did not really want to deal with the Deficit this term, steps up with a more favorable counterproposal, the momentum will favor the left. Given the Ryan plan leans heavily on Democratic initiatives, which the Republicans originally criticized, the right is basically feeding the narrative that average Americans would do better if the Democrats are the ones to cut the Budget and raise taxes.

By embracing a political strategy more favorable to Democrats, the GOP has suggested it is in a rather tenuous position and having difficulty adapting to the current political environment. Since Republican policies generally benefit the rich directly over the majority and their standing as a major political party depends on their image as a counterbalance to the Democrats, i.e. stopping government overreach, their campaign tactics are far less effective than those of their opponents when a direct discussion on policy demands full disclosure. By taking the initiative, which we needed, to address a critical issue booby trapped with a myriad of third rail issues, they are betting on whether or not Democrats will offer a better alternative and hoping the American People will follow the Reagan narrative that GOP principles are a proven success over liberal experimentation.

On the flip side, the Democrats have plenty of opportunities to sink themselves. Just as the GOP taking on a more Democratic strategy can hurt the right, worse damage can befall the left should they embrace a strategy more favorable to Republicans. Taking a backseat on any major policy debate and exploiting every little opening to belittle opponents, i.e. falling into the obvious political traps being laid, is tempting. In fact, the GOP will need the Democrats to do this, so they can at least maintain their current standing in 2012 and 2014. Looking ineffective and petty is only going to be a disaster for those in the party of government. This is not to say Democrats should forgo the gifts bestowed upon them by Paul Ryan and others, but 2012 must be defined by constructive, positive campaigning and honest policy debates that will actually address the issues.

Republicans are probably heading into the next election cycle at a greater disadvantage than Democrats, yet the shell-shocked left doubts its policies and political strategies due to the outcome of 2010. This is what the GOP will have to exploit in coming debates and elections. Outside of campaigning, the dynamic triggered by the debate over the 2011 Budget does have the potential to force healthier political discourse and policy debates. The Grand Old Party may not fare well in the comings years, unless it dramatically restructures its image and moves away from the more destructive tactics it has used in the past, but the process will help America and reform the Democratic Party. Given that, the American People will see some bad policy initiatives come to light, but a more responsive government can emerge if the Budget is balanced responsibly and our national leaders are forced to honestly present their policy preferences.