What should the congressional GOP's policy objectives be for the next two years regarding federal deficits and prosperity?
Two very different strategies are being considered by authentic conservatives: 1) attempt to govern from their majority in the House and actually try to start the process of reducing the costs of entitlements (most conspicuously Social Security and Medicare) as a path back to prosperity and good jobs; or 2) recognize that the GOP cannot govern without holding the White House, and that, therefore, they should not touch entitlements but merely tinker with discretionary spending and frame the issues for 2012 when they may win the presidency and Senate, as well as hold the majority in the House.
I believe we should follow the first option. The second strategy was championed by, among others, The Wall Street Journal (the esteemed wheelhouse of modern journalistic conservatism) in a Jan. 4 editorial headlined "The GOP Opportunity: The main Republican task will be framing the issues for 2012.
They argued that "Republicans did not run in 2010 to be national accountants . . . Thanks to the failure of the Obama-Pelosi spending stimulus, the voters are once again listening to Republicans on the economy. They should not cede that ground back by turning into mere deficit scolds . . . Republicans can't govern from the House. What they can do is stake out a GOP agenda."
Undergirding this "issue framing only" strategy is the belief that in 1995, Newt Gingrich and his new GOP majority failed to "govern from the House" and lost the public relations battle by "shutting down the government" in its effort to advance deficit reduction.
As Speaker Gingrich's press secretary from 1990-1997, I was in the middle of that fight. The first argument — that one cannot "govern from the House" — is demonstrably false. The second argument was true in 1995-96, but need not be true in 2011-2012.
The GOP in 1995 had three major policy objectives: 1) to balance the budget in seven years; 2) to reform welfare; and 3) to pass our Contract with America 10-point plan. President Bill Clinton opposed all three.
With Clinton eventually going along, we in fact balanced the budget ahead of schedule, Clinton signed our welfare reform after first vetoing it twice, and about two-thirds of the contract was enacted into law and signed by President Clinton. I would call that "governing from the House." (And the GOP continued to hold its majority in the House for another decade; then, after Bob Dole lost to Clinton in 1996, the GOP took the White House in 2000 and 2004.)
It is true that we lost the image war when the government was shut down in 1995-1996. But let me explain why the confrontation arose — and most importantly, why we need not lose such a battle now, if it should arise again.
The House of Representatives has only two institutional tools to use when in policy conflict with the executive branch: oversight hearings to expose the facts to the public, and the power of the purse.
Any president can ride roughshod over a House majority unless the House threatens to withhold appropriated funds from disputed programs.
What the GOP House (and Senate) did in 1995 was pass very short-term funding bills (for just a few days) while we continued to debate the president regarding the larger issue of moving toward a balanced budget. When President Clinton refused to sign the bills, the government — except for essential services — "shut down."
In the ensuing public relations battle, Clinton won that image war and the public came to believe that Newt and the GOP needlessly shut down the government for no good reason.
We lost that battle for three reasons: 1) because the shutdown was falsely but effectively framed in the public mind as motivated by the personal pique of the speaker and the desire of the GOP to "cut Medicare in order to give tax cuts to the rich"; 2) the issue of deficit spending and public debt was of much less concern to the public than it is now; and 3) we were not able to deliver our interpretation of the issues directly to even our own supporters.
Back in 1995, there was no Fox News; there was no broadly used Internet; and conservative talk radio was not nearly as powerful as it is today. I had to try to get our message to the public through the filter of the mainstream media (New York Times, Washington Post, CNS, NBC, ABC, etc.) at a time when it was in fact mainstream. They were in no mood to fairly represent the facts, and we got shellacked.
Today, we are in the aftermath of an election that was largely about deficit spending and Obamacare (and the trillions most GOP voters correctly believe it will get us further in debt). So that not only is the deficit issue far more powerfully motivating than it was in 1995 — but if the GOP fails to even try to seriously reduce the deficit (which means addressing, among other issues, Medicare and Social Security), it is likely to pay harshly in the next election for such inaction.
But equally importantly, with the massive alternative media, the GOP can effectively frame the issues as necessary for our future prosperity and the creation of millions of new jobs — without having our message filtered out by the once mighty liberal media.
A principled fight for our prosperity and our children's future must not be delayed another two years. Nor should we fear failing to be able to effectively explain our objectives to the broad public.
Tony Blankley is executive vice president of Edelman public relations in Washington. E-mail him at TonyBlankley@gmail.com
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