As Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Jon Huntsman, and the rest of the Republican presidential field campaign across Iowa and New Hampshire, they should focus on the upcoming battle over next year’s budget and the debt ceiling. The budget will be the first major demonstration of congressional Republicans’ ability (or inability) to govern. The showdown will unofficially usher in the 2012 election season and the outcome will have a major effect on the presidential election.
In the 2010 midterm elections, GOP candidates promised to reduce the size of the federal government and lower the deficit. Now, House Republicans have two choices to make: They can either refuse to compromise with the White House or they can work with Democrats and be willing to compromise to produce a budget. Newly elected and Tea Party-sympathetic GOP House members will likely push their leaders to refuse to compromise with Democrats. But Republican leaders should choose to ignore this influence and work on a budget compromise that would include sensible budget cuts and a possible increase in taxes to help alleviate the nation’s fiscal woes. By negotiating with Democrats, Republicans will strike a chord with average cash-strapped Americans who are tired of a government with out-of-control expenses. However, if the negotiations prove (or make the public perceive) that Republicans are ideological stalwarts who refuse to compromise for the good of the nation, they will hand Obama an easy re-election bid in 2012. They will destroy the GOP’s credibility on being able to handle the nation’s economic problems.
One only needs to look to recent history for evidence. After ending a nearly 50-year Democratic House majority, House Speaker Newt Gingrich tried to force President Bill Clinton to accept drastic cuts in government services without raising taxes. Clinton in turn refused to give into Gingrich’s demands and the government subsequently shut down. Instead of crediting Gingrich for his leadership in standing up to Clinton, the public believed GOP colleagues had prioritized their own ideological preferences over what was best for Americans. Beltway insiders credit this incident for turning around Clinton’s political fortune from a dismal Democratic defeat in the 1994 elections to his landslide re-election in 1996.
If today’s House Republicans are not careful, they can easily repeat the mistakes of the 1990s. However, if House Republicans can prove to the nation that they can handle the reigns of fiscal power effectively, they will give the GOP’s nominee a clear advantage on economic issues. The GOP doesn’t have to surrender their beliefs for the sake of compromise, but they must show the nation that they are serious and competent fiscal managers. They must demonstrate that they are willing to work with a Democratic president and with a Democratic-controlled Senate to produce a budget that will help America regain economic footing. It is, after all, what the voters sent them to Washington to do in the first place.
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