No way to run a government: Reflections on the latest D.C. debacle

My conclusions about the latest mess in Washington, for your consumption:

The GOP lost: Yes, Obamacare is a predictably unruly mess. It consists of many bad ideas (and a few good ones) wrapped into an enormously expensive partisan missile supported by only one party and passed by means of an appropriations process ("reconciliation"), not regular order. But the Republican-led defunding effort was guaranteed to fail from the start. There was no way President Barack Obama and the hyper-partisan Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid would allow their "prized" legislative accomplishment to be starved of funds or amended in a substantive way. House Speaker John Boehner and members of his leadership surely knew this fact but lacked the votes to overcome the defunding faction within the GOP caucus.

The lack of a solid endgame was further exemplified by the various fallback positions taken by the House. Once it became clear the Democrats were not going to negotiate over Obamacare or an increase in the debt limit, the House set about the business of offering a series of tasty a-la-carte policy votes in a failed attempt to entice the Democratic leadership to the negotiating table. In no particular order, the GOP served up the reopening of the national parks, payment of veterans benefits, repeal of Obamacare's odious medical device tax, repeal of the health care subsidies under Obamacare for members of Congress and their staffs, more serious income verification for those who apply for Obamacare subsidies, debt payment prioritization within the federal revenue stream, and tying the debt limit increase to broader budget reform and/or comprehensive tax reform.

But these worthy goals were unattainable in the short term. The president and Democratic leadership enjoyed the political high ground. They pressed their advantage and achieved a short-term political victory. All in all, a predictable result given the cards each party had to play.

One further political note: The GOP's actions gave rise to a fully expected onslaught of negative media reviews (not to mention a full-scale rhetorical assault by the president and various Democratic leaders) during a time the narrative should have been about the predictably sloppy (I'm being kind) start of Obamacare. Such is not exactly smart politics from those who wish to educate the public on the practical dangers of the "Affordable Care Act." Score a check-minus under the GOP's ledger.

President Obama did not cover himself in glory: Governors make better presidents than U.S. senators, Jimmy Carter notwithstanding. Governors must lead in difficult terrain; they do not have the option of voting "present" on significant legislation. In fact, a divided Congress requires the participation of the chief executive. Witness the active involvement of Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton in the last three mega budget deals.

Which brings us to the Obama leadership "style." The same guy who had few friends in the U.S. Senate has failed to make new friends while living at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. When the heat is on, he reverts to campaign mode. It is where he is most comfortable: saber rattling in front of large and enthusiastic supporters is what he does best. It is this (considerable) talent that propelled him to the White House.

But fire and brimstone do not a leader make. The fiercely ideological progressive does not sit down easily with the loyal opposition. Substantively, the president views Speaker Boehner and his band of right wingers as the last obstacles to his transformative goals; all the better to demonize them rather than engage in discussion and compromise.

The bottom line: Despite his short-term political victory, the president's approval numbers are in the mid-40s. He has many roads to travel if he intends to lead a mid-term Democratic comeback in 2014.

The fiscal nightmare continues: The deal that ended the federal government shutdown and increased the debt limit (for the 54th time since 1978) will run out in about two months. All of which means you should brace yourself for another chapter of high stakes political poker this winter.

There is little reason for optimism. Republicans (tea party and other varieties) are serious about spending cuts and tax reform. Many ran on a fiscal reform platform. And they will not countenance another round of tax increases. But there are not enough Senate votes to leverage the president into a significant deal.

Across the aisle, a clear majority of liberal Democrats have neither the interest nor the inclination to change their big spending ways. Although many wish to relieve sequestration's impact on domestic spending, they do not wish to engage the GOP on permanent budget reforms. Serious entitlement reform is a non-starter, too. As for the president, he has repeatedly stated his position that any serious reform must be accompanied by major new taxes.

The respective political bases are dug-in. The vast majority of House members enjoy "safe" seats. And there are few remaining conservative-leaning Democrats to act as honest brokers.

This is not a formula for progress.

Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s column appears Sundays. The former Maryland governor and member of Congress is a partner at the law firm King & Spalding and the author of "Turn this Car Around" — a book about national politics. His email is

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad