The Same Old Rodeo
Posted on September 26, 2008
(This originally appeared in The Politico)
I have been to this rodeo before.
House Republicans are in full revolt. A prominent Republican leader condemns harshly a plan put forward by the president. Dire consequences are promised if action is not taken. Wall Street brokers warn about the market implications. Other Republicans cry treachery and warn about the march
Is this 2008 or 1990? To me, this is déjà vu all over again.
In 1990, President George H.W. Bush, under pressure from Wall Street to confront the crushing budget deficit, commenced a budget summit with House Democratic leaders. In the presidential campaign two years before, Bush had made a bold promise: “Read my lips, no new taxes.” But as the recession deepened, it became clear that some sort of action on the budget was necessary.
Congressional Democrats were intent on stuffing Bush’s campaign promises down his throat. Congressional Republicans were equally intent on cutting spending and helping Bush keep his campaign promise.
The negotiations commenced at Andrews Air Force base. Why Andrews? Perhaps the leaders wanted access to a way out of the country should they have cut a bad deal. As the deal got closer, House Republicans got more and more nervous. Was Bush going to sell them out?
The deal was cut. Some taxes were raised. House Republicans, led by Tom DeLay and Newt Gingrich, revolted. House Minority Leader Bob Michel, a good soldier who warned the president about the possibility of defections, was furious at Gingrich, the newly minted whip, who had been at the summit and who didn’t raise any objections in the room.
Michel had to create his own whip organization because Newt refused to whip the vote. Republicans voted en masse against the legislation. The first version of the budget summit crashed and burned.
A budget deal was still necessary, however. Without House Republicans on board, Bush cut another deal with congressional Democrats, a much worse package under the Republican philosophy, with higher taxes and many fewer spending cuts.
Bush was seriously weakened by the budget showdown. Despite wildly successful foreign policy triumphs, including the fall of the Soviet Union, the reunification of Germany and the success of the Persian Gulf War, two years after the budget deal Bush still couldn’t win reelection.
Where Bush lost, Gingrich won. He was able to use his prominence to solidify his support among conservatives. Even Bush’s defeat at the polls served Newt’s longer term interests. With Bill Clinton entering the stage and Bush departing it, Newt was able find somebody to run against.
Four years after the budget summit, Newt was able to push Michel aside and ascend to the speaker’s chair, largely because Bush had lost and Clinton had won.
It is too early to know how this latest rebellion among Republicans will play out. House Minority Leader John A. Boehner is no Newt Gingrich when it comes to Machiavellian tactics. And this crisis is far more serious than the 1990 financial challenge.
But some of the characters remain. Newt Gingrich is once again prominently playing a spoiler role in a very delicate and sensitive negotiation. A Bush once again occupies the White House. Wall Street once again is eagerly anticipating every word coming from Washington politicians. House Republicans are once again in the minority and many are not at all happy with their president. And once again, the best deal for Republicans (and for taxpayers) will be the first one.
Should House Republicans take a walk on this agreement, like they did in 1990, they will lose their seat at the table. That will allow congressional Democrats to add all kinds of goodies for their members that have absolutely nothing to do with the actual legislation in order to entice them to vote for a Bush “bailout.”
The stakes are high for all the players in this game of political poker. But for the American people, those people who populate the mythical Main Street, this is no game. This is their lives, their dreams and their futures.
John Feehery worked for the House Republican leadership from 1989 to 2005. He is the founder of The Feehery Group, a strategic advocacy firm, and blogs at www.thefeeherytheory.com.