Frame Game

Tom DeLay’s Mental Shutdown

If Tom DeLay didn’t exist, Bill Clinton would have to invent him. Last Friday, the New York Times reported that the House majority whip had told journalists “Republicans would spend next year’s anticipated $14 billion budget surplus–and had intended to do so all year long”–to “force President Clinton to pay for any additional spending requests out of the Social Security surplus.” Clinton pounced on DeLay’s remarks. “The Republican leadership has revealed that actually they have a secret strategy … to raid the Social Security surplus to pay for … a risky economic scheme. They say they’re spending more money now to force that result,” Clinton declared. “I can think of nothing more cynical and irresponsible.”

Welcome to Government Shutdown III. In 1995, Clinton and the Republicans refused to compromise on appropriations, the government ground to a halt, and voters blamed the GOP. Last year, facing another impasse, the Republicans caved and accepted additional spending demanded by Clinton. This year, DeLay has decided to engineer the showdown so that the GOP will have the upper hand and Clinton will take the blame. The plan is magnificently self-defeating. The party that will lose the showdown is the party that is perceived to have engineered it. And DeLay has just handed Clinton all the evidence he needs.

1. Strategy. According to the Times, DeLay referred twice to the GOP’s “strategy” and said it had been in the works all year: “From the get-go, the strategy has always been we’re going to spend what’s left.” Clinton immediately dubbed this a “secret strategy”–White House Chief of Staff John Podesta repeated that phrase twice on Meet the Press–and the press climbed all over it. Saturday’s Washington Post front page explored the GOP’s “strategy” to “deliberately spend” the surplus. Other publications affirmed that the GOP had been plotting “all along.” On Late Edition, Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, chided DeLay for “setting up” a crash with Social Security. DeLay failed to grasp that when two parties collide, the public will blame the one that doesn’t look surprised. If you’re going to have a secret strategy, keep it secret.

2. Provocation. Having broadcast his “strategy,” DeLay signaled his intention to start the war. “GOP Picks a Budget Fight,” announced the Post, citing the Republicans’ “deliberate provocations” and “confrontation strategy.” Gannett News Service reported that DeLay was “daring Clinton.” Rather than squelch this story, DeLay went on television Saturday and when asked whether he was negotiating with Clinton answered, “There’s nobody to negotiate. He doesn’t negotiate. He goes out [and] does photo ops.” CNN’s Rowland Evans concluded that DeLay “certainly is not in a negotiating mood” and “has presented President Clinton with a fait accompli–take it or leave it.” When Clinton leaves it, guess which man the public will blame?

3. Force. The Times paraphrased DeLay as saying that his “plan” would “force President Clinton to pay for any additional spending requests out of the Social Security surplus.” Hours after the story appeared, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott held a press conference to brag about the GOP’s freshly passed tax cut. Instead, reporters pressed Lott about “DeLay’s strategy” to “force a showdown.” The Associated Press confirmed that Republicans “planned … to force Clinton to pay for his spending programs from the Social Security surplus.” If the plan works, Clinton will dip into the trust fund. And then, with a mountain of press clips to back him up, he will repeat what he said Friday: The GOP deliberately “forced that result.”

4. Spite. “We will negotiate with the President, after he vetoes the bills, on his knees,” DeLay told the Times. “We’ve got him in the box.” Pundits, smelling blood, hyped these quotes on every talk show. “The Republicans are somehow banking on the idea that Clinton … will have to, as DeLay said, get on his knees and beg,” observed Juan Williams on Fox News Sunday. “DeLay has made no secret he would relish such a scenario … with Clinton ‘on his knees,’ ” added the AP. Everyone agrees DeLay is determined to beat and humiliate Clinton at any cost. And guess who will get the blame for a shutdown? The guy who seems determined to beat and humiliate his opponent at any cost.

5. Blame. According to the Times, DeLay “indicated that if the spending caps were lifted, that was acceptable ‘as long as the American people understand it’s the President busting the caps, not us.’ ” CNN’s Wolf Blitzer repeated this quote and discussed the charge “that Tom DeLay wants the president to go into that Social Security trust fund, in order to accuse him of breaking it.” The Post concluded that “GOP lawmakers … are betting that the public will blame the president, not Congress, for squandering the money he has insisted be saved to shore up Social Security. The National Republican Congressional Committee even conducted a poll on the subject.” Republicans end up looking as though they care more about the PR contest than about the fiscal consequences–which is the surest way to lose the PR contest.

Clinton’s opening salvo conveyed the words Democrats will use to package DeLay’s plan: “cynical and irresponsible.” That day, a White House spokeswoman told the AP that the Republican budget “doesn’t meet the responsibility test. … It’s a cynical plan.” On Fox News Sunday, Clinton budget chief Jack Lew assailed the GOP’s “cynical charade.” On Meet the Press, Podesta attacked the Republican “strategy to go into the Social Security surplus in the vain hope that the public will blame the president. It’s cynical and it’s wrong.” Meanwhile, Clinton and Podesta projected pacifism and public-spirited diligence. ”I am not nearly as pessimistic as a lot of people are about the prospects of our reaching an agreement, and I am determined to try to do it,” Clinton declared Sunday. When asked whether the government would shut down again, Podesta replied sadly, “I hope not. That’s certainly not in the public’s interest.”

On the Republican side, Lott and House Majority Leader Dick Armey have been left to clean up DeLay’s mess. “I’m not seeking a showdown,” Lott insisted on This Week as pundits bombarded him with questions about DeLay’s plot. “We’re not looking for a battle. We’re looking for solutions.” On Fox News Sunday, Armey assured Brit Hume. “We will continue to work with the president.” “On his knees?” asked Hume. “No, of course not,” Armey pleaded. In the event of another budget impasse, Lott explained, Republicans would “keep funding programs at the current year’s level” to “avoid a train wreck” while they negotiate. That’s “the solution,” he suggested.

DeLay, of course, put it differently. “There’s a little trick that you can use called [a] continuing resolution that continues spending at least year’s level. And we can keep that up all through next year if we have to,” he bragged on CNN. “If he vetoes that, the president will have shut down the government.” Rather than call this plan a “solution,” as Lott did, the AP reported that DeLay had conceived it as ” ‘a little trick’ that would put Clinton at risk of being blamed for a shutdown.”

You can understand why DeLay keeps boasting of his “tricks” and “strategies.” He’s determined not to lose the shutdown the way he did last time–and thanks to his new plan, he won’t. Above all, he’s determined to prove his critics wrong. They said he had no plan. They said he was stupid. Well, he showed them.