GOP Experiences Growing Pains

The big U.S. budget battle reached an unsatisfactory conclusion, and both sides are now stuck with a compromise they are not completely fond of for now. Curiously, the potential contenders for the Republican presidential nomination have been silent. This was a great time for them to throw some red meat to their conservative constituents and bolster primary voter support or take an easy shot at the president. Instead, they chose to ignore the issue entirely, and out of all the possible responses, this was probably the smartest.

Of course the 2012 challengers don’t want to address the budget Đ the Republican budget plan is destined to be heavily scrutinized by older voters and independents alike. Unlike Obama’s fickle youth voters, the elderly always turn out and are very passionate about the issues currently on the table (Social Security and Medicare), while the people standing firmly at the center are likely to frown at the extreme stands many in Congress are taking. No senior is going to vote for someone who is in favor of cutting his or her entitlements, and the Republicans, thanks to the influx of Tea Party caucus members, are out to gut these and other social programs.

By their silence, the GOP presidential hopefuls seem to be acknowledging just how far to the right the Tea Party movement has taken their campaigns. No one is going to win a presidential race, especially one against a reasonably popular incumbent, without the support of older and more independent voters. And one thing the Tea Party does not have is an appeal to independent and moderate voters. The Republican majority owes a debt to these freshmen Tea Party darlings who gave the Republicans the majority they wanted. Unfortunately, all of these Tea Party people are unwilling to budge from their very stringent views on taxing and spending, and the more mainstream republicans will have to find a way to bring the Tea Party’s far-right politics into balance with the typical Washington model.

Until that happens though, the Congressional fighting is stealing the spotlight. The American people are not very fond of Congress in general at the best of times. The fact that this budget mess is occurring during a hard economic time and the fact that things couldn’t be any more partisan is only making that contempt for Congress worse. Favoring a more extreme position is helpful when running in the primaries, but when the issue in question is one the president with which is involved and one that he will no doubt use in his re-election campaign, the possible GOP candidates need to tread carefully. If the eventual Republican nominee got involved now and took a clear side, his or her position on the issue would inevitably be questioned and could be an easy way to distinguish the president from his or her opponent.

In legislative vs. executive budget battles, the executive always comes out as the reasonable one. Just look at President Clinton, who easily won re-election in 1996 after the two government shutdowns only made the public outraged at the Republican Congress. President Obama has been positioning himself as the man of compromise, much to the dismay of pretty much everyone. Any Republican who is identified with this fight, especially the side that is threatening a variety of popular social programs, is just begging to look like the more extreme candidate in 2012.

The Republicans who want to be president can’t stay silent for long. There is some merit to letting other people enter the fray and watch this debate burn out while they keep their noses clean, but there is no momentum in this early stage of the 2012 presidential fight. The first Republican presidential debate has already been postponed due to a lack of available candidates. By this point in 2007, Barack Obama had already announced his candidacy and the historic election was just getting off its feet. A future candidate needs to recognize and attract (hopefully positive) attention to survive the rough waters of the primary season. Everyone is talking about Paul Ryan’s “brilliant” budget plan, but he’s not on the short list of potential presidential candidates. This is the time for the people who are actually running, like the virtually unknown Tim Pawlenty, to make a name for themselves. It is bad strategy to let the Paul Ryans of the world get all the attention.

Kerry Wakely is a third-year political science major. He can be reached at