Charles Krauthammer: Until it wins another house, GOP shouldn't try to govern

Posted: August 01, 2011

We're in the midst of a great four-year national debate on the size and reach of government, the future of the welfare state, indeed, the nature of the social contract between citizen and state. The distinctive visions of the two parties - social-democratic vs. limited-government - have underlain every debate since Barack Obama's inauguration: the stimulus, health-care reform, financial regulation. The debt ceiling is but the latest.

The sausage-making may be unsightly, but the problem is not that Washington is "broken" - that ridiculous, ubiquitous cliché. The problem is that the definitive popular verdict has not yet been rendered.

Obama won a great victory in 2008 that he took as a mandate for European-style social democracy. The subsequent counterrevolution delivered a staggering rebuke in 2010. Under our incremental system, however, a rebuke delivered is not a mandate conferred. That awaits definitive resolution: the rubber match of November 2012.

I have every sympathy with the counterrevolutionaries. Their containment of the Obama experiment has been remarkable. But reversal is simply not achievable until conservatives receive a mandate to govern from the White House.

Lincoln is reputed to have said, "I hope to have God on my side, but I must have Kentucky." I don't know whether conservatives have God on their side (I keep getting His voice mail), but I know they don't have Kentucky. They don't have the Senate or the White House. And under our constitutional system, you cannot govern from one house. Today's resurgent conservatism, with its fidelity to constitutionalism, should be particularly attuned to this constraint of deliberately separated powers.

Trying to turn a blocking minority into a governing authority is not just counter-constitutional in spirit, but self-destructive in practice.

Consider the Boehner plan for debt reduction. The Heritage Foundation's advocacy arm calls it "regrettably insufficient." Of course it is. That's what happens when you control only half a branch. But its achievements are significant. It is all cuts, no taxes. It establishes the precedent that debt-ceiling increases must be accompanied by equal spending cuts. And it provides half a year to negotiate more fundamental reform and keep debt reduction in the public eye.

I am biased about the Boehner plan because for weeks I've been arguing for such a solution: a half-year debt-ceiling hike with dollar-for-dollar cuts, followed by intensive negotiations on entitlement and tax reform. It's clean. It's understandable. It's veto-proof. (Obama won't dare.) The Republican House should have passed it weeks ago.

After all, what is the alternative? The Reid plan, with its purported $2 trillion of debt reduction? More than half comes from not continuing surge spending in Iraq and Afghanistan for 10 years. Ten years? We're out of Iraq in 150 days. It's a preposterous "saving" of an entirely fictional expenditure.

The Congressional Budget Office has found that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's other discretionary savings were overestimated by $400 billion. Not to worry, I am told Reid has completely plugged that gap: There will be no invasion of Canada next year. Huge savings.

The Obama plan? There is no Obama plan.

And the McConnell plan, a final resort that punts the debt issue to Election Day, would likely yield no cuts at all.

Obama faces two massive problems: jobs and debt. They're both the result of his spectacularly failed Keynesian gamble: massive spending that left us with a stagnant economy, high and chronic unemployment, and a staggering debt burden. Obama is desperate to share ownership of this failure. Economic dislocation from a debt-ceiling crisis would serve that purpose: Those crazy tea partyers ruined the recovery!

Why would any conservative collaborate with that? November 2012 constitutes the new conservatism's one chance to restructure government and change the ideological course of the country. Why risk forfeiting that by offering to share ownership of Obama's wreckage?


Charles Krauthammer is a Washington Post columnist.

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