Sixteen years ago, in the autumn of 1999, a budget impasse was pushing the federal government toward, whaddya know, a government shutdown. Faced with expected budget surpluses, the Republican-controlled Congress decided it would be a good time to cut spending by delaying Earned Income Tax Credit payments to the working poor.
The leading Republican presidential candidate cut them off at the knees.
“I don’t think they ought to balance their budget on the backs of the poor. I’m concerned for someone who is moving from near-poverty to middle class,” said then-Governor George W. Bush.
A few days later, Bush broadened his critique: “Too often, my party has focused on the national economy, to the exclusion of all else, speaking a sterile language of rates and numbers, of CBO and GNP. Too often my party has confused the need for limited government with a disdain for government itself.”
After seeing Bill Clinton win re-election by yoking the Senate institutionalist Robert Dole to the radical right-wing House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Bush knew that it was political poison to let the Republican Congress become the face of the Republican Party. Even in the thick of the Republican primary, Bush was compelled to make a clean break.
But the Republicans running for president don’t seem to mind. No one has thrown a brushback pitch at the congressional leadership the way George W. did.
The candidate that has come the closest is Gov. Chris Christie, who derided the chaotic Speaker’s race as a “Game of Thrones” quest for personal power that “people don’t care [about]. They dream of just having a Congress that actually does something.”
But Christie’s attack, unlike George W. Bush’s, is not designed to position his party for the general election. He complains that the fractured congressional Republicans are failing to “hold this President’s feet to the fire” because they’re not putting legislation on his desk to repeal Obamacare and defund Planned Parenthood.
How damaging would it be for the eventual nominee to be caught up in the congressional nonsense? It’s true that what happens in an off-year doesn’t necessarily impact the election year. The 2013 shutdown didn’t upset the Republican’s 2014 midterm.
But the 2014 Republicans got their act together and quit the shutdown shenanigans. And that was before the nihilistic House Freedom Caucus formed. Who knows if that gang of political thugs will ever play ball?
Furthermore, it’s also true that you can wait too long to reposition for the general election. Mitt Romney may have been able to tighten up the 2012 race by donning a moderate face in the first general election debate. But it was too little too late. Or just one flip-flop too many.
It was George W.’s brother Jeb who said before he launched his campaign that a Republican needs to be willing to “lose the primary to win the general.” And in fairness, he has partly lived up to that standard by sticking with his positions on immigration and Common Core.
But he, like John Boehner, Kevin McCarthy, and every other Republican presidential candidate running, has been unwilling to stand up to the House Freedom Caucus and declare that it does not speak for the Republican Party.
If no one in the Republican Party can stand up to the most extreme right-wing faction of the party now, when it counts, don’t be surprised if voters conclude that a Republican president would let the House Freedom Caucus run wild.