What exactly do the Republicans want? That's hard to say, given their constantly shifting messages. Let's recap the past two weeks.
As the world knows well, congressional Republicans are refusing to reopen the government and are threatening a default on the U.S. debt unless they get what they want.
But what, exactly, do they want? That's hard to say, given their constantly shifting demands.
REP. LANKFORD: We seek fairness, less debt
Let's recap the past two weeks.
As a price for extending the debt limit, House Republicans floated an unrealistic wish list that included tort reform, offshore oil drilling, loosening limits on carbon emissions, building the Keystone XL Pipeline, ending "net neutrality" policies and partially defunding the 2010 Wall Street reform law.
Meanwhile, to prevent a government shutdown, their central demand was killing the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. That non-starter morphed into a call to delay the law for one year (with the goal of killing it) and repeal its tax on medical devices. Which was followed by an effort to postpone just the law's requirement that people buy insurance (another tool for gutting it), coupled with grandstanding on whether members of Congress and staffers should have to get their coverage on the Obamacare exchanges.
Once the shutdown kicked in, along with a wave of public disgust, the emphasis switched to piecemeal funding of important or popular government functions — without touching Obamacare — and paying furloughed federal workers not to work. Wait a second: Isn't that what Republicans don't like about welfare?
If this weren't enough of a moving target, the overall Republican strategy now seems to have shifted away from Obamacare and toward broader fiscal issues. The new priorities are entitlement cuts and tax reform, to be hashed out by some reconstituted version of a failed bipartisan supercommittee.
With all these issues bobbing up and down, and the shutdown and debt limit merging into one big miasma, it's no wonder that House Speaker John Boehner says his main goal is to "have a conversation" with President Obama. There's a lot to discuss.
What's missing is a coherent mission. Not long ago, it was clear what Republicans stood for: limited government, free enterprise, religious freedom, family values and a strong defense, all served up with a heavy dose of Ronald Reagan-style optimism. Nowadays, their message is murky, beyond that they really, really don't like Obamacare, or Obama.
If there's any encouraging aspect to the latest developments, it's the return to big-picture fiscal issues. Restraining the growth of the largest entitlement programs, Medicare and Social Security, is the most important step in controlling long-term deficits. And simplifying the absurdly complex tax code would be a huge boon to the economy.
So one obvious way out of this mess would be a clean bill to reopen the government and raise the borrowing limit, accompanied by side agreements to address entitlements and tax reform in a non-crisis atmosphere.
Which would take cool heads and common sense — once-prized GOP values that much of its congressional delegation seems to have misplaced.
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