Susan Rice--and Now, Chuck Hagel: Lessons for Conservatives and Republicans in Effective Opposition

Let’s consider two very different efforts by the Republican “loyal opposition”: first, the successful effort to derail Susan Rice’s nomination as secretary of state; and second, the unsuccessful effort to preserve all of the Bush tax cuts as part of the fiscal cliff negotiations.  

The difference in the success of those two efforts should inform Republicans as they think about  the tasks before them in 2013, including the battle over the looming nomination of Chuck Hagel to be Secretary of Defense, and the continuing battle over spending and the debt ceiling.   

In a nutshell, the right needs to do more of what works (fighting Rice and Hagel) and less of what doesn’t work (trying to run the government from the House, which is one half of Congress).  

To be sure, some right-wingers want it all; they think that they can stop Hagel from being confirmed AND force President Obama to cut spending. Many conservative pundits, and a few politicians, seem to think that their own moral clarity will triumph over the conjoined mass of the Senate, the White House, the MSM, the financial markets, and public opinion.  

That’s a nice thought for some, but it’s not a practical thought; we might recall that Gen. Custer had high hopes at Little Big Horn.  

Conservatism should be grounded in faith, to be sure, but it should also be grounded in reason. And reason tells us to do more of what works, and less of what doesn’t work.  

So let’s consider, more closely, how the battles over Rice and the fiscal cliff played out.  

The Rice battle was, of course, a winner for Republicans.  In fact, not only did the anti-Rice effort succeed, but it also helped motivate conservative thinking on foreign policy and national security, thinking that had been demotivated on Election Day 2012. Indeed, the investigating and name-naming in the wake of the September 11 attacks in Benghazi has provided the right with a new template on how to proceed in the future: we might think of it as a “combined arms” campaign, consisting of public commentary and appearances on the Sunday shows, bolstered by coordinated Congressional investigations and solid journalistic sleuthing.  

As a result, a bevy of mid-level Obama officials were either reassigned or forced to resign, and Rice, a close ally of President Obama, was thwarted in her quest to replace Hillary Clinton. Yes, the administration’s final report on Benghazi can be rated as a cover-up, but that should only further inspire more digging. 

Moreover, if the right does keep digging, they will find that Benghazi is a gift that keeps giving, because their inquisitions will lead them to larger questions about the “Arab Spring,” and about whether or not the Obamans know what they are doing in the Middle East.  As I noted last summer, hereherehere, and here, the administration’s handling of Egypt should give any friend of Israel, or of freedom and democracy, deep cause for concern and alarm.    

Now in 2013, we can see that the former trio of likeminded senators--Republicans John McCain and Lindsey Graham, joined by maverick Democrat Joe Lieberman, who played such an influential role in foreign policy over the last decade--has been updated and strengthened with a dollop of diversity; Lieberman has retired, but Sen. Kelly Ayotte has effectively taken his place.   

So if Obama does, in fact, nominate Hagel as defense secretary, conservatives are ready to respond with real firepower. An oddsmaker would likely call Hagel the favorite to win Senate confirmation, but, of course, the smart money, just a few months ago, was on Rice.  

In the meantime, through strong opposition, even in a losing fight, Republicans are poised to solidify their position with conservative and pro-Israel constituencies. In other words, even if Republicans lose the confirmation battle in the Senate, this is a good fight for the right.   

So that’s an example of attainable success. Now to the other model, which we might describe as all-too-attainable failure. 

Let’s be clear and get it on the table: Republicans lost the fiscal cliff battle. They lost not just on the policy, but also on the politics.  As a January 4 Gallup poll reminds us, nobody looks really good in the wake of the fiscal cliff politicking--but Republicans look terrible.  According to the poll data, Obama’s approval/disapproval rating on the fiscal cliff is 46:48.  That is, minus two for him. Similarly, Joe Biden is 40:42--also minus two. That’s not great, but it’s not too bad.  By contrast, Republican leaders in Congress are 25:67, or minus forty-two.  That’s bad.  

If those sorts of low ratings for Republicans continue through 2013 and 2014, the GOP faces the prospect of losing more seats in the ’14 midterms, including the possibility of losing filibuster strength in the Senate and perhaps even the majority in the House. That’s really bad.  

The American people believe that Obama was re-elected to run the country, not John Boehner or Mitch McConnell. That’s just political reality. And so Newt Gingrich was right when he said last week that trying to force Obama’s hand on the debt ceiling is a “dead loser” for Republicans. 

Gingrich, of course, should know; as speaker way back when, he went through, and lost, the same sort of fight in 1995-96.  

It’s not so much that Republicans are wrong on the policy of trying to trying to cut spending, it’s that they are wrong on the politics of trying to govern from below. As Gingrich said, 

“Everybody’s now talking about, ‘Oh, here comes the debt ceiling.’ I think that’s, frankly, a dead loser.  Because in the end you know it’s gonna happen. The whole national financial system is going to come in to Washington and on television and say: ‘Oh my God, this will be a gigantic heart attack, the entire economy of the world will collapse. You guys will be held responsible.’ And they’ll cave.” 

Gingrich was attacked for making that prediction--called a RINO, a loser, a sellout, etc.--but he’s still correct.  All the pie-in-the-sky ideas floating around conservative circles, such as somehow forcing the Democrats to agree to cut spending by amounts equal to new debt allowances, are just that: pie in the sky.  And therefore, such airy-fairy ideas are unworthy of serious Republicans who are seeking seriously to shape policy and politics in the short run, with an eye toward regaining power in the long run.  

So today, Republicans have to understand: they can fight tactical battles against Obama, even as they acknowledge that Obama is, in fact, president.  

So it’s certainly worth fighting Chuck Hagel, and fighting hard. And who knows--it’s possible that Republicans can stop Hagel from becoming defense secretary.  

Yet in the end, so long as he’s sitting in the Oval Office, it will be Obama’s pick to run the Pentagon.  If Republicans want their person to run DOD, they will first have to elect a president.   

In the meantime, GOPers also lack the capacity to alter the strategic direction of federal spending and its too-high levels. And, frankly, they shouldn't worry about that too much, because it’s better not to get stuck in some “grand compromise” with the Democrats that would fully and finally shred Republican credibility on taxes.   

Finally, with unemployment still up and growth still down, it’s okay to let Obama “own” the economy. If he wanted it so badly, let him have it.  

So does that mean that Republicans can’t do anything on the domestic front?  That they have to go along with whatever Obama says on federal spending and government activities?  Not at all.  

Yet there’s an art to opposition, and Republicans need to re-learn that art. If they can’t re-learn smart opposition, it will be a long time before they get a chance to try actual leadership.  

I’ll have more, soon, on the historical artistry of opposition.  


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