If “Just Say No” crowd insists on a yard, they will lose a mile

Though there is still much wrangling ahead over a deal to fund the government for the next fiscal year and raise the debt ceiling, some Republicans have decided on the “just say no” approach. That is, the federal government will shut down unless Democrats agree to defund President Obama’s health care law, his signature achievement in office. Completely defunding Obamacare this month is not going to happen.

There is an alternative strategy that Republicans can adopt that could advance conservative ends and serve as a path forward on the budget and debt ceiling issues. Deciding to take it will require courage to stand up to the “just say no” crowd and the conviction to convince persuadable voters of all stripes that this is the best approach.

Any plan must remember three fundamentals about our system of government:

·      We have a constitutional balance of power. The House, Senate, and president must agree for anything to become law. Any political approach must either avoid staunch opposition between the three key players or its adherents must be prepared to bear the consequences of shutting down the government.

·      Whoever shuts down government will be punished.  History’s lesson is clear that those frustrated by not having enough strength to prevail in a balance of power standoff will have even less the next time after the electorate chastens their belligerence.

·      Red lines get you in trouble. While conservatives have been quick to point out how President Obama’s chemical weapons red line on Syria has put him in an awkward place, they fail to see how a year-end red line on Obamacare will similarly make them look ineffectual when it is crossed without effect.

Given those constraints, some common complaints from the “just say no” crowd don’t stand up to scrutiny.

·      “300 Boehner’s in the House and 75 McConnell’s in the Senate would be little different than what we have currently.”  A key focus of the “just say no” crowd is to elect those that share their views to Congress in place of those they determine to be too willing to work towards consensus.  While the electorate in each district or state will allow you to replace perhaps a quarter of the Congress with Rand Paul’s, Ted Cruz’s, or Justin Amash’s, they will never form a governing majority. The legislative result of those efforts may not be what supporters had in mind. The division within conservative ranks has actually helped liberals advance legislation that has resulted in more tax increases and more defense cuts than would have resulted if the GOP had been able to stand together. The “just say no” crowd must realize that one’s friend on 80 percent of the issues is not one’s sworn enemy the other 20 percent of the time.

·      If not this fight, which? If not now, when? Politics is a game of addition not subtraction. To build a bigger coalition, conservatives will find that they can catch more flies with honey than vinegar. The GOP needs to have a positive, targeted message in not just conservative districts, but swing districts in states like Colorado, Ohio, and Florida. Shutting down the government is vinegar. It won’t attract new voters and could hurt future recruiting efforts.

·      We can’t continue to go along to get along. What then should we do? Legislative strategy begins with the adage “inch by inch, life is a cinch, yard by yard, life is hard”. Effectively gaining yardage requires a collaborative effort. Entitlements were extended inch by inch and should be constrained the same way. By insisting on large leaps like defunding Obamacare, the hard life of the “just say no” crowd is self-inflicted.  So far, the insistence on large repeal leaps has generated a lot of bluster, but little results.  Worse still, it wastes an opportunity to trim entitlements in a manner that can pass.

It’s disheartening to see so many well-meaning political enthusiasts make themselves so easy for their opponents to demonize because they make such simple execution errors. Winning campaigns is the easy part, but it is to no avail unless you know how to govern. Governing results from either a collaborative effort or a string of consistent wins, inch by inch. Ask for a yard, and you will likely find yourself pushed back to your own goal line.

Kennedy leads George Washington University's Graduate School of Political Management and served three terms in the House of Representatives from 2001 to 2007.

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