Prior to the 1983 elections in the United Kingdom, the Labour Party, then led by one of the left's true believers, former journalist Michael Foot, put out its pre-election manifesto. Titled The New Hope for Britain, the document stated that a Labour government would renationalize the huge telecom, aerospace, and ship-building companies that Margaret Thatcher's Tories had just privatized, seek universal nuclear disarmament, withdraw from the European community, and abolish the House of Lords. Another Labour MP, Gerald Kaufman, gave the '83 Labour Manifesto a different title: "The Longest Suicide Note in History." And it was. Margaret Thatcher's party rolled Labour in the 1983 election, and Labour stayed deep in the political wilderness for another decade until, in 1994, a fellow named Tony Blair was elected the party's leader. Blair quickly scrapped the party's devotion to ideological purity and led Labour back to power. He remained prime minister for a decade.
The lesson: Dogmatic adherence to and enforcement of ideological purity tends to coincide with prolonged political irrelevance.
The GOP may well be in the process of writing the modern equivalent of its political suicide note. Doing so will not only harm the party, it will harm the country. I am of course referring to reports that the GOP leadership in the House of Representatives is seriously considering shuttering the federal government in an attempt to force the president to cut spending. I hope very much that the leadership is bluffing because shuttering the federal government would be flagrantly irresponsible. Furthermore, it would be a catastrophic political decision with little hope of achieving any of the important goals that conservatives are desperate to see written into law. In politics, as in poker, patience is a virtue. Republicans are holding 2-7 off-suit. Not a very good hand to play when the stakes are so high.
Undoubtedly, this country MUST address spending. But failure to reach a deal on the debt ceiling would do violent harm to the only real chance we have of saving this country from drowning in a self-created ocean of excess. No combination of taxes or spending cuts can get our deficit balanced. We must GROW our way out if we are to survive. Shuttering the government compromises the country's already meager economic condition. Do not take my word for it. The Economist — no fan of collectivism or large deficits — explained what the fallout of failure to reach a deal might be:
Failure to raise the debt ceiling would force immediate spending cuts equal to 6 percent of GDP. Not only would that threaten to send the economy back into recession. It would also deprive doctors, pensioners, contractors, and millions of others of money needed to meet their own obligations, setting off a chain reaction of defaults.
Nor would the sanctity of the debt be guaranteed. Disgruntled creditors could challenge the legality of prioritising interest payments; populists could demand that Chinese bondholders be paid last, not first. One miscalculation could leave the Treasury without enough money to make an interest payment. Even a few days' default would roil the global financial system, which relies on Treasuries in countless transactions. The mere possibility could incite skittish investors to dump their holdings, driving up interest rates. [Economist]
I cannot fathom why the world believes that America is creditworthy, but people keep buying our debt. The dollar remains the world's reserve currency. I, for one, would prefer that our political party not be responsible for handing that title over to the Chinese yuan. We also ought to be wary of sending our economy, already overburdened by President Obama's vast regulatory schemes and skyrocketing health-care costs, into free fall by showing the world that we cannot play nice with the opposition.
But even those Republicans who are not afraid of any of those consequences would be wise to resist a shutdown simply because the fight is not one we can win… at least not right now.
The American people like the president more than they like the Republican Party. But the honeymoon will not last, unless of course congressional Republicans behave like children and, in doing so, make the president look positively reasonable by comparison. If, however, Republicans restrain from committing political suicide in the first month of the president's second term, the president will eventually be forced to act on the deficit, or pay a heavy price come the midterms. Put simply, the country believes President Obama "won" the fiscal cliff showdown. But it will quickly become apparent that his "victory" did nothing to address this country's problems. And, unlike the first go round, the president will not be able to rely on his favorite talking point — the rich do not pay their fair share — because, alas, he hath soaked them.
If we remain patient, the president will face four unenviable political options not long after the debt ceiling debate: (1) Do nothing about spending and get hammered during the midterms; (2) Advocate for dramatic decreases in spending; (3) Advocate for dramatic decreases in Medicare; or (4) Try to tax corporations. If he has the guts to go after Medicare — he will not — Republicans should join him in his crusade because while seniors will go crazy, they will blame both parties and for the first time in generations, our leaders would actually be addressing the primary threat to our nation's future. Alternatively, the president can try to slash defense spending (this is a losing argument since we live in a dangerous new world and blindly cutting the funding for our nation's security would mean, among other things, shuttering forward operating bases that permit the United States to project power globally while also compromising our ability to protect ourselves in the future). Finally, and most likely the President can go after corporations. This too is a loser, since doing so would lead to immediate layoffs, dramatic reductions in employee benefits, and yet another retraction of the American economy.
Add in the fact that the president appears poised to leap face first into the political quicksand of attempting to dramatically regulate the sale of firearms, and what you get is a president who will have far less ability to press his spend-now, pay-later agenda. We can win the fight for meaningful spending cuts against that version of President Obama. But if we try to achieve these goals now by shooting the hostage — the American economy — in the leg, the American people will not soon forgive the Republican Party. We would therefore do well to remember what happened the last time the Democrats controlled all three branches of the government, and make sure we damn well do not allow that to happen again. If we do, it won't matter how right or wrong conservative ideas are, because by the time we get a chance of making them law, it will be too late.
Jeb Golinkin is a 3L at the University of Texas School of Law and writes about U.S. politics and policy for TheWeek.com. From 2008 to 2011, he served as an editor and reporter for Frum Forum/New Majority. Follow him on Twitter (@JGolinkin) and email him at email@example.com.