Have Republicans Turned the Corner on Strategy?

by Stuart Rothenberg January 30, 2013 · 9:59 AM EST

After spending a little more than a year ramming their heads into a brick wall, congressional Republicans and their allies have taken their first positive step: They have stopped doing it.

The GOP’s decision not to fight on raising the debt ceiling next month gives the party the opportunity to pause, catch its breath and prepare for a fight on the future funding of the government, far more favorable terrain than a fight over whether to pay for obligations already incurred.

Congressional Republicans are still suffering from one of their biggest mistakes in recent memory — their decision not to fully embrace the final plan proposed by the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, also called Simpson-Bowles.

Had the three House Republicans on the commission — Michigan Rep. Dave Camp, Texas Rep. Jeb Hensarling and Wisconsin Rep. Paul D. Ryan — joined the 11 commission members (including three GOP senators) who voted to accept its recommendations, Congress would have had to vote on the plan without amendment.

The final plan would have required more than $1.6 trillion in discretionary spending cuts, added almost $1 trillion in new revenue (coming largely from tax changes but also from higher taxes) and saved billions by raising the retirement age and making additional changes to Social Security.

Of course, Simpson-Bowles probably would have failed to win congressional approval. House Democrats were against the compromise, and most House Republicans probably would have rejected the deal anyway, just as they did when, less than a year ago, the House voted 382-38 against a Simpson-Bowles-like proposal pushed by Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., and then-Rep. Steven C. LaTourette, R-Ohio. Only 16 Republicans voted in favor of the plan.

Supporting the plan would have given Republicans bipartisan cover for a comprehensive deal, which, in retrospect, looked pretty good for them.

Liberals surely would have attacked the deal and complained of draconian spending and entitlement cuts, but the process — and support from pragmatic Democrats such as Erskine Bowles — would have undermined that Democratic message.

Republican stubbornness about refusing to even consider any proposal that would raise taxes, even one with significant spending cuts and entitlement changes, has hurt the GOP dearly, putting the party for the better part of two years in the unenviable position of defending millionaires from higher taxes.

And, of course, the party eventually caved on that line in the sand in the New Year’s Eve deal to extend the Bush tax cuts for all but those at the highest levels of income, though Democrats gave some ground on the threshold for higher tax rates and the estate tax. Still, Republicans could have gotten a much better deal — and certainly put themselves in a much better position politically — if they had embraced Simpson-Bowles two years ago.

Now, after losing the fight on taxes, Republicans need to change the discussion by getting voters to focus on the nation’s debt both as a drag on the economy and as a fundamental threat to the nation’s long-term economic well-being.

Of course, that argument could be less convincing if the U.S. economy starts to grow at a faster clip, the unemployment rate falls and the stock market continues to make new highs. And Democrats are certain to try to keep Republicans back on their heels by demanding the GOP’s laundry list of spending cuts and by emphasizing the resulting pain.

Still, it’s hard not to feel as if Republicans now at least have a chance to change the debate. The question is whether the party’s “no compromise” wing learned a lesson during the fiscal-cliff fight.

Over the past few years, an increasing number of Capitol Hill Republicans seem to agree with former Republican Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina, who long argued that he would rather be right and be in the minority than compromise on his principles and be in the majority. It is a silly position that shows a lack of respect for voters and an arrogance that has put the party into a deep hole.

The GOP’s overall image remains a serious problem, as is the variety of voices coming from the party. Given the party’s image, most voters are not likely to give Republicans the benefit of the doubt in any confrontation with the White House, and even when party leaders sound the right tone, uncompromising outside groups or ideologues on Capitol Hill undercut any more broadly appealing message.

Democrats have been a step and a half ahead of Republicans recently, taking advantage of divisions within the GOP, as well as of the tone coming from many in the party’s “no compromise” wing.

President Barack Obama and congressional Democrats have been adept at calling for compromise and criticizing Republicans for being intransigent and inflexible at the same time that most Democrats have been equally stubborn (and willing to go over the fiscal cliff if Republicans had not caved).

With the GOP eager to compromise with Democrats on an immigration overhaul, Republicans will need to draw a contrast on fiscal issues with the president and his party. They can do that on spending, though doing so includes some risk.

But Republicans (and conservatives) on and off Capitol Hill must understand that appearing threatening, inflexible and angry may feel good, but it won’t improve the party’s image or, ultimately, achieve the party’s policy goals.