The Self-Sabotage of Small-Government Republicans in Congress

They haven't chosen the wrong hill from which to fight, but the wrong valley.
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The best distillation I've seen of House Republicans' strategic blunder comes from Daniel Larison of The American Conservative, who appreciates the self-defeating quality of their tactics. "It would be bad enough if small-government Republicans were merely being short-sighted and committed to a losing strategy," he writes, "but what makes these tactics more harmful to the cause of small-government conservatism is that they reflect no sense of prudence or consideration of unintended consequences." As he goes on to explain

Take the recent claims from many conservatives in Congress that there won’t be a default if the debt ceiling isn’t raised. Even if it were technically possible to prioritize payments in the way that they claim, it would still raise borrowing costs, undermine the dollar, and probably induce a recession, and all the while the size and cost of the government would not have been permanently reduced one bit.

Toying around with default threatens to impose greater costs on American taxpayers rather than reduce them. It is the perfect example of striking a symbolic blow against fiscal irresponsibility while adding to the country’s fiscal problems. If one seriously wants to control and reduce government debt, raising the debt ceiling ought to be the last thing that one worries about, since refusing to raise it simply makes paying off the debt that has already been incurred more expensive. Making useless “stands” of this kind not only make small-government conservative ideas unappealing to many other Americans and provoke backlashes against them, but they make even those that agree with many of those ideas conclude that their representatives are ill-suited to governing.

Just so.

Given the K Street Project, the multi-trillion dollar Iraq debacle, and the general growth in government during the Bush years, I was predisposed to doubt Republicans would ever shrink government. And even though the Tea Party movement has now changed the makeup of the GOP in the House and Senate, I still have no confidence Republicans will ever succeed in shrinking government, because at every step they keep behaving so shortsightedly. It's as if the way for their project to succeed is for them to be maximally intransigent at every moment for fear that if they sketched a strategy involving negotiation, compromise, and incrementalism, members would use it as an excuse to slip into voting for runaway statism at every turn. 

I understand why they don't trust themselves. Given the GOP's track record, why would they? But surely they can see that major shifts in a country's direction cannot be accomplished by a party that has an advantage in just one house of Congress. Negotiation, compromise, and incrementalism is the best any party can do from that position, but the GOP (tracking the broad confusion in the conservative movement, behaves as if compromising from a position of weakness in a way that gets you something you want but concedes something else is a betrayal, even if it leads to an outcome that's substantively better for small government.

Like the GOP presidential candidates last cycle who stood on a stage and said they'd reject a deficit reduction deal that cut $10 in spending for every $1 in tax increases, House Republicans have given every indication that they're unwilling to make even those deals that advance their ends more than they could reasonably hope, as if doing so would be a failure of principle rather than a victory. If you're a small-government conservative, the sad result is there's no coalition you can back that's likely to succeed in advancing the agenda in which you believe. There are Republicans ostensibly working for a smaller federal government, but it isn't clear how the fights they choose would lead to that outcome, even if they manage to stop neoconservatives from plunging the country into more trillion-dollar military conflicts of choice.

The GOP amassed such a poor record while governing that voters ousted it. Finding itself in a much weakened position, the party tried to substitute intransigence for the long, hard work of clawing its way back into power. The strategy has brought them to a moment where its negotiating ploy may well end up hurting the country far more than it would be helped even if Republicans won. They haven't chosen the wrong hill from which to fight, but the wrong valley.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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