Republicans are headed for trouble over the gap between what grass-roots Republicans want and what Republicans in Washington can deliver.
The gap will come into play once an agreement on raising the debt limit, now being negotiated by congressional Republicans and the White House, is reached this summer. Republicans insist the increase must be accompanied with spending cuts and budget caps, and it will.
But here’s the problem: Republicans may force President Barack Obama to accept cuts that by the standards of Washington and history are unprecedented, yet in doing so won’t satisfy a multitude of conservatives, tea party activists, Republican presidential candidates and talk radio hosts — all of them outside the Beltway.
Many oppose any hike in the debt limit regardless of what is attached to it in spending reductions. Others are likely to be unsettled by a compromise that includes concessions to Obama, perhaps even a tax increase. In short, the debt limit agreement is a recipe for exacerbating the division among Republicans.
Once the deal is done, Obama is bound to claim he got the upper hand, just as he did after the compromise with Republicans on taxes and spending in the lame-duck session of Congress in December. Though he hadn’t truly prevailed back then, the mainstream media insisted he was the winner. Now whatever the outcome in the debt-limit talks, the media is poised to give Obama credit again.
So far in the negotiations under the direction of Vice President Joe Biden, the White House has offered practically nothing. Obama’s representatives are allergic to cuts (or reforms) in entitlements, while eager to cut defense spending. They want any caps that, if unmet, allow for tax increases to curtail the deficit. Given their intransigence, an agreement is nowhere in sight.
The point is that Obama would benefit from doing things he has routinely opposed and moving to the right. But first he has to oppose Republicans to show liberal Democrats — his political base — that concessions to Republicans were made only grudgingly and then only to secure an increase in the debt limit and avert a default.
The actual agreement, however, will be far less to Obama’s liking. A compromise overloaded with concessions to the president wouldn’t stand a chance in the House. But one stone-hard fact remains: There will be an increase in the debt limit.
True, Obama needs it more than Republicans do. But they don’t want to risk an economic plunge either. Republicans can pass a short-term increase (with a dollop of spending cuts) if Obama resists. What they’ll never get is outright surrender by the White House.
That takes us back to the trouble ahead. I suspect the Republican base, stiffened by tea party activists, isn’t attuned to the necessities of a divided Washington. Polls have shown that conservatives, young and old, rich and middle-class, strongly preferred a government shutdown to the stopgap spending bills, with cuts, enacted earlier this year.
A hike in the debt limit — even with cuts, curbs and caps to which Obama has agreed — will be hard for conservative Republicans to swallow. And dreams and reality will clash.
Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard, where this article appeared.