Reality Bites: The GOP Majority Hits the Ground... Stumbling

01/25/2011 09:31 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

It's only been three weeks but House Republicans are already losing momentum on health care, deficits, civility, guns, and Issa's investigations. Was Nov. 2 their high point?

Republicans certainly earned bragging rights when they captured 53% of the national vote and netted 63 seats in the House in the mid-term elections. But now, rather abruptly, if Majority Leader Eric Cantor's appearance on Meet the Press on Sunday is any indication, the new GOP House majority is on the defensive.

What went wrong? Two things: President Obama raised his level of his performance (see John Heilemann's excellent piece in New York magazine) and the GOP's patriotic rhetoric collided with a thick stone wall called reality. It turns out that they have no program other than recycled platitudes - a 19th century vision in a 21st century economy. The confluence of early miscues are adding up:

Deficits. When the GOP in the Lame Duck session had to choose between rewarding its big donors with continued tax breaks and delivering on deficit reduction, we know who won. Other than shocked Tea Partiers who didn't realize that they weren't supposed to take WashingtonSpeak against deficits seriously, party support for adding $800 billion to the deficit over a decade was, after all, pretty consistent with the party's history... and the clarifying explanation of Nixon's attorney general, "watch what we say, not what we do."

Reagan doubled the federal debt and Bush 43 doubled it again. The federal budget deficit of $1.3 trillion in FY 2010 [corrected] was inherited by Obama from Bush -- and essential to stop our economic slide into depression. GOP talking points that blame Obama for job losses and deficits in his first two years not too convincingly overlook what was locked into place when he took his oath. Given their two off-the-books wars and a prescription drug plan, no wonder Vice President Cheney said that "deficits don't matter" as early as 2001, according to interviews with Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill in The Price of Loyalty.

This year's GOP deficit unseriousness was their early failure to cut $100 billion from the budget in the first year, which they now say really meant only $60 billion. Then on Sunday came Cantor's promise to begin the cutting with $100 million (that's million) from the presidential campaign finance program -- which is an ideological assault posing as deficit reduction (and which accounts for all of .001 percent of the shortfall in any event). Also, reversing decades of counter-cyclical policy that increases federal spending to get out of recessions is extreme, not mainstream.

Then wait till the public gets to focus on supply-sider Paul Ryan's plans to privatize and voucherize Social Security and Medicare on the free market. Didn't we do that for a century-and-a-half before the New Deal?

We're now a half year after the party pledged to cut an initial $100 billion and nearly three months after their 2010 election victory and three weeks after choosing a new Speaker and still the party can't specify what it will cut and what it will save. Patriotic abstractions about big government can win some elections, but they don't add up to a governing philosophy. How embarrassing - it's like there being nothing in Al Capone's safe, nothing in the dowry promised by the suitor. There's no there there.

Health Care Repeal. If jobs is the #1 issue according to every poll and commentator -- and if the GOP routinely attacked Obama for focusing on health insurance rather than jobs for the past year -- why on earth did the GOP so ostentatiously push repeal as its first issue? Their best answer is that they promised to do that. When the only thing worse than breaking a bad promise is keeping it, surely they could have gotten to this loser in month #2 or later.

Again, the House Speaker and majority can use the adjective "job-killing" till they're red in the face, there's no serious economic data to support that assertion. Indeed, since providing health care to 30 million addition Americans will obviously require more providers -- and since a big reason we lose jobs abroad is that American firms have to build the price of health care into their products while competitors enjoy universal health coverage -- the argument that the Affordable Health Care Act creates jobs is far more convincing than the GOP's adjectives.

And the argument, according to Speaker Boehner, that repealing health care is "the will of the American people" is belied by the NBC exit poll last November showing a 48-47% split on the law after an election that turned far more on 9.8% unemployment than an already passed piece of legislation.

Darryl Issa couldn't have gotten off to a worse start than basically announcing to all that Obama (or his administration, or whatever he now says he meant) was one of the "most corrupt in American history." It's one thing for Michelle Malkin to on cue foam at the mouth on Fox News to promote her book Culture of Corruption, but quite another when the chairman of a oversight committee with subpoena power sounds like Joe McCarthy before holding a day of hearings.

It appears that he's impeaching his own credibility before he starts thinking about impeaching Obama for... whatever.

Guns. Nobody of course anticipated the tragedy in Tucson, if you don't count Rep. Giffords, who both publicly criticized Sarah Palin's crosshairs target map and repeatedly confided to her husband Mark Kelly that she feared being shot. So let's put aside the strawman that people accused Palin of being "an accessory to murder" (names please), the larger problem is that the party which incessantly tosses around the verbal grenades of gun rights and violent rhetoric now is again on the defensive for inciting if not seditious talk. Not to mention that there's a 67% majority for restoring the ban on assault weapon (CBS poll), as even Dick Cheney indicated possible support.

After the massacre in Tucson, where more people died than in the shootout at the OK Corral in Arizona [corrected], it's hard to see gun-toting Tea Party members in the same way. Hard to defend 30-bullet magazine clips. And harder to credibly elevate the Second Amendment into a sacred text.

Shutdown! The only thing worse than scaring the public with threats about shutting down the government - public hospitals, Pell Grants, Social Security? - is actually doing it in a frenzy of Republican groupthink. Ask Gingrich.

Wingers. When Democrats controlled everything in Washington, the press and much of the public were intrigued by the "hell no!" Tea Party activists. Anti-establishmentarians make for good copy. But now that several dozen are in the government and several of them will irresistibly out-extreme the other, we're now beginning an era of Bachmann wannabes. Watch for a daily competition to get on network shows saying something daffy -- like Obama is a __________ (fill in the blank -- anything will do, including Area 51). Their base and district will love it.

But independent voters and suburban Republicans won't. The result will likely be the Goldwaterization of the "new" GOP. When these folks denounce a popular president trying to be bipartisan during a fragile economic recovery with 27 million still un- or under-employed, they make him seem what he is -- the adult in the room. And Obama's eerie equanimity -- and consistently civil, bipartisan tone from his 2004 keynote address to his Tucson eulogy -- makes the Far Fright seem even more extreme.

With Obama's numbers and the GDP climbing -- and with the public more interested in ideas than insults -- the GOP could hardly have gotten off to a worse start. And short of some calamity here or abroad, it's hard to see what will shift these trends, especially after Obama's likely triple triumph of Lame Duck laws, his Tucson memorial and the State of the Union tonight.

{Update, January 26: having now heard the President's State of the Union and Rep. Paul Ryan's and Michele Bachmann's responses -- and the public reaction -- allow me to double down on my pre-speech analysis. It seems 1982 all over again -- a President optimistically talks about growth...and the opposing party focuses on shrinkage. Obama in tone and policy projects the future -- the GOP the past. This does not help the Grand OLD Party in the 21st Century...and what School of Economics argues that austerity alone produces growth? Hoover Redux is not a winning slogan and strategy.]