So much of our politics is built on a binary model: House or Senate; liberal or conservative; and Democrat or Republican. Unfortunately when it comes to finding a solution to the latest round of wrangling over the debt ceiling and the future of the nation’s health care system, the either-or approach currently being advanced by many conservatives will not be able to crack the legislative code necessary to get a deal that can pass, and it will likely serve to advance liberal aims.
Many in Washington seem to have focused on refining their pitch to the base, while neglecting the voters in the middle necessary for majority support. “Repeal ObamaCare now” or “No more debt ceiling increases” makes a good bumper sticker or tweet, but it is not a viable legislative strategy for Republicans in Congress.
The GOP would be better off by taking a page out of the Bill Clinton triangulation playbook.
On health care, pursuing a solutions-based approach that focuses legislative efforts on limiting the negative aspects of ObamaCare while finding partners on the other side of the aisle to make common sense cost reducing improvements to the legislation, the GOP can simultaneously burnish its legislative credentials and work to fix a law they view as broken.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor tried this approach once and was rejected by the conference and outside conservative groups, leading to a host of bad press for Republicans. They shouldn’t make that mistake twice.
Finding a clutch of Democrats that would be willing to listen to ways to alter the law to increase incentives to consumers who make better health care decisions that could significantly reduce the cost of care, for example, is much easer than finding Democrats who want to repeal ObamaCare. But interested Republicans will have to look for them and reach out first.
That approach could actually lead to a law, which is what legislators are paid to produce, unlike the repeal movement, which just produces rhetoric. It would also advance conservatives’ policy objectives: more incentives for wise choices and less cost to the government.
By now Republicans should have learned the lesson of prior standoffs: failing to come up with an alternative puts Democrats in the driver’s seat and will force Republicans to eventually agree to a bill that is more to the left than they would like.
Not coming up with the necessary 217 votes in the House and letting the Democrat-led Senate take the lead on the last debt ceiling debate resulted in more defense cuts.
Doing the same on the “fiscal cliff” resulted in tax increases for more people.
Taking a similar belligerent approach on the pending need to increase the debt ceiling and approve a spending measure for the next fiscal year is likely to give the Senate the upper hand and could, if a government shut-down results, thrust Republicans to prolonged minority party status.
Passing a blunt, simplistic, binary bill that is dead on arrival in the other chamber may perhaps make a great statement and spur donations to organizations championing such an approach, but rarely advances the cause.
The chamber that passes a nuanced approach that advances their goals in a manner that cannot easily be rejected by the other side first is practicing the art of legislating.
Ultimately any deal that avoids a fiscal calamity is a win for both sides. Yes, it’s pretty sad that merely avoiding disaster is seen as a success, but if you want to get out of a hole you first have to stop digging.
If Democrats and Republicans can show the American people that this time they managed to engage in a debate and emerge with consensus without pushing the nation to the brink of disaster it can serve as an example of how to make our democracy work, something that has been conspicuously absent from Washington for a long time.
Hon. Mark R. Kennedy leads George Washington University's Graduate School of Political Management and is Chairman of the Economic Club of Minnesota. He previously served three terms in the U.S. House of Representatives and was Senior Vice President and Treasurer of Federated Department Stores (now Macy's).