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One should never be surprised, I suppose, at the capacity of elected
Republicans, at least those who infest the U.S. Congress, not only to
fail to do the right thing, but to do the wrong thing in a particularly
inept and politically self-defeating fashion. So the news that House
Republican leaders are ready to announce in advance that they have no
stomach for pushing the only sensible and politically promising proposal
they’ve come up with in the last two years, while dismaying enough, was
almost predictable.

The news from the Washington Post was that less than a month after
vowing to make a 10 percent across-the-board tax cut the centerpiece of
their agenda this session, even to the point of welcoming a
confrontation with President Clinton on the issue, the leadership is
ready to abandon the fight “because of stiff opposition within their own
ranks.” Instead, GOP leaders including the sometimes reliable Dick
Armey, say they will be content to push for scaling back the “marriage
penalty” and pushing for “other targeted tax relief more in line with
Clinton’s approach.”

As an aide to House Speaker Dennis Hastert put it to the Post, “Our
enthusiasm is tempered by the reality of how hard it is to get it all
done.”

Well, duh!

The confusions here are manifold, starting with a complete
misunderstanding of whether the goal is to get something — anything –
passed as legislation and signed by the president so the
inside-the-Beltway media will view them as responsible and “growing,” or
to win the larger political battle so as to set the stage for future
victories on policy issues worth struggling over, like actually reducing
the size, scope and cost of government.

Few sensible people expected a 10 percent across-the-board tax cut to
be signed into law with an unrepentant Democrat who has survived an
impeachment attempt in the White House. The point of making it the
center of a Republican agenda was that it was a
simple-easy-to-understand reform that would benefit every taxpayer (not
just “the rich”) and would create a clear and understandable
differentiation between Republicans and Democrats. A Republican Party
that pushed for tax cuts and was willing to dare a Democratic president
to veto them just might strike a few more voters as worthy of a ballot
in 2000. A party unwilling to make the effort would be less likely to
attract support.

Furthermore, the only appropriate response to a disgraced and
impeached
(even if unconvicted and unremoved) president — the only response that
would validate the House’s decision to impeach as something more
substantial than partisan game-playing — would be to ignore the
president and refuse to pass or consider seriously any of his
initiatives. In the old days, in religious communities they called it
shunning. It wouldn’t have to involve name-calling or even a hint of
incivility, but simply demonstrating, by declining to take the president
seriously as a player worthy of attention that the decision to impeach
was not a joke or a partisan ploy but a serious effort to rein in
lawbreaking and abuse of power. If the president really was and is a
lawbreaking power abuser, how can the House be eager to play ball with
him?

If the Republicans had a shred of self-respect or confidence in the
correctness of their purported cause, of course, it wouldn’t be. And
with the Juanita Broaddrick story (finally) slipped into the political
ether by a “mainstream” media source (NBC), it should have been
relatively simple for the Republicans simply to stay with a modest but
identifiably Republican agenda of tax cuts, letting the independent
counsel law lapse, asking pointed questions about putting U.S. troops
into places like Kosovo under foreign command, and burnishing persistent
rhetoric about smaller government with a few minor concrete
accomplishments in regulatory reform. They wouldn’t even have to say out
loud that they don’t consider the president a serious player in policy
matters. They could let their actions demonstrate it, and in the process
build a modest record that clearly differentiates them from Democrats on
which to run in 2000.

Instead, in the wake of a brief, shining impeachment moment nobody
expected to succeed, they seem to have reverted to Beltway conventional
wisdom that the only political accomplishment voters respect is a lot of
legislation — not laws repealed, but laws passed — achieved by
horse-trading and compromise. And they don’t even do that well.

Any self-respecting labor leader looking at a bargaining session in
which he realistically expects to get a dollar-an-hour raise will
announce that he is demanding three bucks and that anything less is
taking food from the mouths of starving children. If he emerges from the
bargaining with a $1.25 raise, he won’t announce that it’s better than
he expected, he’ll complain bitterly that greedy management pushed him
to the wall and should expect an even tougher session next time.

Congressional Republicans, by contrast, calculate what they’re likely
to get after all the compromises, downgrade it by a media criticism
factor, then announce it as their opening bid. They may complain after
they’re forced to compromise even further from what they say they really
want, but they never learn. Never.

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