Published March 29, 2011
On Shutdown, Dems Have Talking Points But No Plan
“It’s hard to get a straight answer from Democrats these days because their position changes almost daily, depending on whether you talk to the White House or Senate Democrats.”
-- Senior House GOP aide to Power Play
The assumption in Washington is that the government will shut down when the current stopgap funding measure expires on April 8.
The questions now at hand are – For how long? And who gets the blame?
Democrats are working on a plan that would allow them to say they tried to meet Republicans halfway on spending cuts. This is similar to the earlier effort in which Democrats said they were meeting Republicans halfway because they were abandoning $47 billion in spending requests sought by President Obama.
The new effort on the Democratic side involves taking cuts already made and adjustments in other expenditures outside the realm of Republican cuts – annualized changes in farm subsidy rates, for example – to claim that they are proposing half of the $61 billion in total reductions sought by the GOP.
It looks like a mess, but the goal isn’t good bookkeeping. The goal is to divide the House Republican caucus and position themselves to profit politically. While there is no sign that Senate Democrats and the White House have a real accord on cuts, the message from Majority Leader Harry Reid and his team is already in place on the assumption that some kind of plan will eventually be produced.
The narrative from Reid and others is that Democrats and moderate Republicans want to meet halfway, but that a brigade of Tea Party savages is preventing them. He paints the Republican leadership as hostages who would gladly sell out but are politically afraid to do so.
It’s not clear if Reid’s primary intent is just to insult Speaker John Boehner or to rile up freshmen members, but either way, the ultimate goal is still the same – divide and conquer.
While this narrative is very attractive to reporters who have been flogging Tea Party rebellion stories since three months before the 2010 elections, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it will work in the long run.
For the Reid plan to work, Senate Democrats actually have to cough up a plan. It doesn’t have to succeed, but it has to get past the Senate, or at least have the unified support of the body’s 53 Democratic members. The Democratic caucus in the Senate smacked down Reid’s last gambit -- $6.5 billion in cuts for the rest of the year.
“First, they didn’t believe one dime in spending could be cut. Then they relented and agreed to cut $10 billion after Republicans forced the issue. Then Democrats said they could offer $11 billion more, but most of it was gimmicks,” a senior House GOP staffer told Power Play. “And suddenly, days later, they say they can offer $20 billion, but they won’t share it with anyone. Republicans have passed a credible plan; it’s called H.R. 1. Where is the Democrats’ bill, and where is their plan?”
Vice President Joe Biden huddles again today with the administration’s budget team in a bid to cobble together a cuts package that Democrats can again tout as meeting the Republicans halfway.
But as in the last effort, success will depend on whether the cuts are real and if moderate Senate Democrats will go along. Democrats failed on both counts last time, but Biden and Reid are now hoping that a bigger number will get them the support of most of their caucus and maybe a few moderate Republicans.
But for now, Reid and Biden are betting on the come. They are bashing Tea Partiers and expressing sympathy for the hostage Boehner in expectation that the Senate will fall into line.
But as more Senate Democrats join the movement to use the current crisis as leverage to get support for entitlement reform or even balanced budget legislation, the administration and Reid may find a limited audience for a plan that looks like a political stunt designed to force a government shutdown and place the blame on Republicans.
Unless President Obama and Reid are willing to expand the playing field on fiscal issues, it seems unlikely that they can avoid a government shutdown or be seen as credible on the deficit.
The Democrats who have argued that a shutdown would be a political opportunity may have led their party into this war of words without an exit strategy.
“If we tried to overthrow Qaddafi by force, our coalition would splinter… To be blunt, we went down that road in Iraq. Thanks to the extraordinary sacrifices of our troops and the determination of our diplomats, we are hopeful about Iraq’s future. But regime change there took eight years, thousands of American and Iraqi lives, and nearly a trillion dollars. That is not something we can afford to repeat in Libya.”
-- President Obama speaking about the U.S. involvement in the Libyan civil war
The biggest questions facing U.S. involvement in the Libyan war concern the definition of victory.
President Obama on Monday implicitly and explicitly answered critics of his decision to commit U.S. forces to the war that have compared the effort to the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Obama’s unlikely political success came from his early opposition to the Iraq war as a Senate candidate. For Obama to launch preemptive attacks on a dictator in the same region without the approval of Congress produced some rather head-spinning dissonance.
In his speech on Monday – scheduled at 7:30 pm Eastern, the White House said to avoid an 8 pm conflict with ABC’s “Dancing With The Stars” – Obama posited that the Libyan air assault was acceptable because it involved a broad coalition and was in service of a humanitarian goal.
In the speech at a 2002 Chicago anti-war rally that launched Obama’s career in national politics, the future president argued against U.S. intervention in Iraq for humanitarian reasons thusly:
"I suffer no illusions about Saddam Hussein. He is a brutal man. A ruthless man. A man who butchers his own people to secure his own power. He has repeatedly defied U.N. resolutions... But ... Saddam poses no imminent and direct threat to the United States, or to his neighbors ..."
The Obama doctrine, as laid out on Monday, holds that action to prevent brutality by dictators is OK, though, if there is a broad coalition is support of the action because “American leadership is not simply a matter of going it alone and bearing all of the burden ourselves.”
But Obama has enlisted the help of only nine nations for his Odyssey Dawn coalition, compared to the 40 George W. Bush enlisted for Iraqi Freedom. Obama does have the advantage of a commitment from NATO to take over command, which Bush lacked. But since NATO is a predominantly American organization, the actual burden bearing looks to be substantially the same.
While Bush made the argument that invading Iraq would prevent an attack on the U.S., Obama argues that attacking Libya is merited because two conditions are met: it would prevent a humanitarian crisis and has broad international support
So, the conditions for attacking a nation under the Obama doctrine of preemptive war are, to say the least, subjective.
What Obama is really hanging his hat on, though, is how far he is willing to take American involvement. While Bush went all in on Iraq from the start, Obama promised that no ground troops would be deployed and that the goal of the war was not “regime change,” a topic on which he made his only explicit mention of the Iraq war.
Obama preserved the legalistic nature of his war saying that the military attacks in support of the rebels looking to drive Muammar al-Qaddafi from power were not actually part of an effort for regime change, but that diplomatic pressure on Qaddafi to surrender power was.
Obama talked about the eight years spent propping up a government in Iraq and the huge human and economic costs associated with that, but he also talked about the need for the coalition involved in the war to help the anti-Qaddafi rebels form a functioning state after Qaddafi is inevitably driven from power.
After nine years, Obama is hanging his differentiation with what he mocked as the “dumb war” in Iraq on the fact that the actual act of toppling the dictator will come at the hands of his people, not Americans. Heck, it was the Iraqis who hanged Saddam.
This is perhaps why support for the Libya war has been so tepid – even when he stepped forward to explain his policy after nine days of U.S. attacks, Obama parsed and puckered.
Clinton Celebrates Libyan Prime Minister Without a Country
"The subtext to the President's speech concerning Libya (Monday night) was ‘What if we had done nothing?’ But a better question might be, ‘What if helping Libya's interest actually hurts America's interests?’”
-- Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., in a response to President Obama’s Libya speech
There are three potentially bad outcomes to the Libyan war: Qaddafi remains in power producing a long stalemate including terror strikes by Muammar al-Qaddafi and Islamists; the U.S.-led coalition deposes Qaddafi but rebel forces cannot form a government and international and U.S. troops are needed to maintain order; Islamists completely hijack what began as a tribal civil war and turn Libya into a safe haven for terrorists.
None of these is very appealing and any such result – bloody stalemate, U.S. troops on the ground, or an al Qaeda haven – would have to be deemed a substantial failure in the war.
President Obama’s strategy for the war hinges on the establishment of a new rebel-led government. This will be a particular challenge in a place that has been dominated by tribal rivalries for centuries.
Qaddafi deposed a king 42 years ago who hailed from the eastern tribes now in revolt. That civil war was prompted by what Qaddafi’s tribesmen believed was an oppressive and exclusionary rule. Sensing an opportunity, the eastern tribesmen are pushing to topple Qaddafi, and the wheel keeps on turning.
The rebel coalition is based on an uneasy coalition between the Cyrenaican tribesmen and Islamic radicals who want to see the secular Qaddafi – who worked with the West against their movement – out.
With mounting evidence that the Islamists are ascendant in Egypt and the Facebookers of Tahrir Square have been marginalized, there are increasing questions about who exactly it is that America means to put in power in Libya.
The effort to stand up this new government continues today as the foreign ministers of the NATO countries lift up Mahmoud Jabril, who styles himself as the prime minister of the Libyan Republic.
Having helped open Libyan oil reserves to Western companies and holding double graduate degrees from University of Pittsburgh (where he later taught), Jabril is already a known commodity to the diplomatic community.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her European counterparts are meeting today to talk about how to establish a new government in Libya, etc. But there is little to suggest that Jabril’s Libyan Republic even has control of the rebel movement, let alone will be able to establish a unity government if Qaddafi actually does fall.
We know that the ranks of the rebels – and likely their most effective fighters – include jihadis who joined the struggle against America in Iraq and are now looking to depose what they see as a Western lapdog in Libya.
Whether a former planning professor from Pitt can keep them in check seems to be a matter of some concern on Capitol Hill. Now that the administration is edging closer to arming the rebel forces, that concern will surely deepen.
And Now, A Word From Charles
“The problem is that the population in Sirte is pro-Qaddafi, meaning if we support the rebels in a ground assault against it, we are not protecting a population, we're attacking a population. On the other hand, if our objective is regime change, we have to provide the air and ground support… Either support the attack on Sirte or not, Obama will have to decide. No matter what his words are, the answer will be what happens in the field. “