Last week provided two important political tutorials, spaced more than 4,000 miles apart. Neither of them has anything to do with gay marriage.
Lesson No. 1: The defeat of U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana on Tuesday is proof that the tea party still exists and remains a potent force in determining who will carry the Republican message and what that message will be. U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., already expects that a GOP primary challenge will be part of his 2014 bid for re-election.
Lesson No. 2: Last weekend’s defeat of President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, punished for his work on the conservative side of the European fiscal crisis, is evidence that Republicans and their tea party allies in the U.S. will have to do a much better job of selling the pain that would come with their plans to vastly shrink the size of the federal government.
The link between the two lessons is linguistic. For three years, by its very name, the tea party movement has worn a protective cloak of red, white and blue. With the word “austerity,” Europe has shown that a new identity can be imposed on tea partyers as a group that pushes too recklessly for cuts that are too deep, threatening fragile economic growth in the process.
You can assume that Democrats are taking notes.
Republicans, of course, publicly scoff at any suggestion that the Continent offers anything other than snails and a bad example. But they also acknowledge that, when it comes to shrinking government, the devil isn’t just in the details, but the conversations that surround the details.
In France, conservatives lost control of a conversation about pain and fairness.
“Most voters get the fact that you can’t continue to spend money you don’t have indefinitely without getting into trouble,” Republican pollster Whit Ayres said. “So they understand the big picture. What most voters want is not to be singled out in the effort to become more fiscally responsible.”
“It takes some serious national leadership from a president to persuade people of the necessity of trying to get your fiscal house in order in a fair way,” Ayres said. “That said, nobody likes doing with less. It’s not a popular thing to do.”
President Barack Obama, the pollster says, hasn’t just neglected the conversation, but has actively avoided any discussion of pain — except as it applies to those who should pay more taxes. Mitt Romney, the GOP’s presumptive nominee, has made a good start but will have to do more, Ayres said.
It will be a tough conversation. “It’s difficult to make good economic policy by majority vote,” he said. “I doubt that we would ever get a majority in this country that would vote to raise the debt limit rather than default on our bonds.”
And there are places Romney won’t be allowed to go. He can’t tell voters that federal programs — domestic programs, in particular — must be cut to save money. The argument that works is that those programs must be cut in order to preserve their core purposes, Ayres said.
“You will never, ever stand the slightest chance of winning an argument that the federal government was wrong to create Social Security or Medicare. That’s the ultimate nonstarter,” said Ayres, who is now Washington-based but got his start in Roswell.
When it comes to a conversation about federal spending, Romney’s greatest threat may come from House Republicans, whose safe districts put them under no obligation to appeal to the political center — as a GOP presidential nominee must.
“That is a real debate in the Republican conference,” said U.S. Rep. Rob Woodall, R-Lawrenceville, one of the more thoughtful members of the freshman class of 2010. “Do you let America vote against a president who has clearly failed as a CEO? Or do you let America vote in favor of a Republican vision?”
Woodall would push the issue. “We have to roll out our best Medicare reform alternatives,” he said. “We have to roll out our best transportation reform alternatives.”
What unites Romney and House Republicans is the belief that cuts to federal spending are directly linked to economic growth. So how do you sell the pain? You don’t, Woodall said. You sell the day after the pain.
“What we can sell is the optimism about tomorrow. That’s what we know,” Woodall said. “I believe crisis is something we respond to well. Long-term pessimism is not something we respond to well.”
And where will this discussion about pain, and the day after pain, occur?
Chambliss, the Georgia senator, says one of the three presidential debates on the fall calendar between Obama and Romney should be dedicated to a discussion focused on the massive tax increases and spending cuts scheduled to go into effect automatically on Dec. 31 as a result of the failure of last year’s debt commission to reach an agreement.
Ayres, the pollster, doesn’t think that’s a bad idea, if we can get past the routine tap dancing. “Anything you do to craft something more than a sound bite here or there would be good for the country,” he said.
- By Jim Galloway, Political Insider