“No” Worries

Republicans let Obama goad them into releasing a budget. Maybe they shouldn’t have.

A bicamerial group of Republicans on the Capitol steps

Watching congressional Republicans elaborately introduce their second alternative budget—this time with numbers—it was hard not to see them as victims of a cruel prank.

Opposition parties typically present an alternative—sometimes more than one—to the administration’s budget. But it’s by no means required. And for good reason: If the party doesn’t control Congress, the budget stands little chance, anyway, making it more important as a rhetorical device than as a fiscal blueprint. And when the process is rhetorical, the minority generally does better when forcing the majority to defend its position rather than explaining its own. (Besides, the president’s own party can often be counted on to create headaches for the administration.) All this explains why, especially when it comes to a budget, the opposition usually takes a pointillist approach, targeting one provision at a time.

This seemed to be the preference of most Republicans this year. “Traditionally, the party in the minority has offered a series of amendments to try to improve the majority’s budget, and that’s the tack we have taken this year,” said Republican Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire on Tuesday. Sen. John Kyl of Arizona agreed: “They won the election, so they get to draft the budget.”

Yet somehow Obama managed to goad the opposition into producing its own full-blown alternative. First it was the DNC, labeling the GOP the “party of ‘no.’ ” Obama joined in at his press conference last Tuesday: “[T]here’s an interesting reason why some of these critics haven’t put out their own budget. … And the reason is because they know that, in fact, the biggest driver of long-term deficits are the huge health care costs that we’ve got out here that we’re going to have to tackle.”

The Republicans took the bait, and the results have not been pretty. The first draft—more a statement of principles than a budget—was widely mocked. (GOP leaders now say it was more of a “marketing document” or a “blueprint” than an actual budget.) It also allowed White House press secretary Robert Gibbs to twist the knife on prime time: “The party of ‘no’ has become the party of no ideas.”

The second draft, released Wednesday, is substantive but does little more than reiterate familiar GOP policies. It cuts entitlement spending, extends the Bush tax cuts of 2001 and 2003, simplifies the tax system so people pay either 10 percent or 25 percent on income, and imposes a five-year spending freeze. Republican budget committee member Rep. Paul Ryan framed it in terms of long-term debt, pointing to a series of graphs comparing projected deficits under Obama’s budget with the more prudent Republican alternative. The diverging lines said it all. “We want to tackle these fiscal challenges before they tackle us,” Ryan said. Twice.

That takes care of the “ideas” charge. But it doesn’t mean the ideas are new, or popular, or that they make sense. (The budget makes projections all the way to 2080, prompting one liberal blogger to ask why it fails to account for the invention of warp drive.) Ryan said voters voted for Obama’s personality, not his policies. But if Obama’s policies are guaranteed health care, funding for education, and reaching out to unfriendly countries, then polls suggest that Americans do support him.

Why Republicans lost in 2006 and 2008—were they too conservative or not conservative enough?—is up for debate. But electoral defeats usually chasten the losing party somewhat. “The Democrats after Reagan’s victory were a bit intimidated by his election and were looking to accommodate, rather than offer what their enduring values and beliefs were,” says Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution. The GOP’s alternative budget shows that they are taking the opposite tack, doubling down on conservative favorites like coastal drilling and dropping the capital-gains tax.

Meanwhile, the roll-out process has been one long tale of internal backbiting and forced displays of unity. After last week’s draft emerged, some Republican leaders said there would be a follow-up while others denied it. Some defended the numberless document while many complained. To counter this perception, Republicans staged an elaborate pep rally Wednesday, complete with a bicameral procession past photographers into the chamber, a closed-door budget discussion, and a press conference on the east steps of the Capitol, where Minority Leader John Boehner referred reporters to a later press conference if they wanted information on the budget. Now alternative alternatives are emerging, reinforcing the impression that the party is fractured.

Which raises the question: Would the GOP have been better off with no alternative at all? Outright rejection vs. constructive engagement is a perennial dilemma of opposition parties. In the last eight years, Democrats argued constantly whether “Not Bush” was enough of a platform to win an election. “You can play this either way,” says longtime budget guru Stan Collender. “On the one hand, they rose to the challenge and can now say they’re more than just the party of ‘no.’ On the other hand, every time you put out a detailed budget, you give people the opportunity to attack it.” (Democrats don’t mind if they do.)

Fair enough: The failure to produce an alternative may have been more damaging than producing one. But Republicans were against having a budget before they were for it. They can now be criticized for both the budget they failed to produce and the one they did produce. They also risk looking fractured just when unity is key. Meanwhile, hackneyed attempts at projecting unity just make it look worse. Maybe they should have remained the party of “no.”