04/17/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Compelling Republican "Collaboration"

The Republicans have shown that a minority can control congressional outcomes. The Democrats advance policies; the Republicans, rather than bargaining for something in return, simply defeat Democratic efforts. The strategy works because the Republicans are content with the status quo. The Democrats, with their bicameral majority, must make the status quo unsatisfactory to the Republicans. By denying Republicans their elixir -- military strength -- the Democrats can compel collaboration.
At present the Republicans have won two arguments: First, that national security comes from military strength and is not subject to any budgetary constraint (the Bush administration did not even include war costs within its budgets); Second, that taxes are bad. The Democrats must restructure the argument: First, that national security involves not just military strength but economic strength and energy independence. Second economic strength requires fiscal responsibility. If they adopt this posture, persist in it, and live by it, with majorities in both houses, or even strong minorities, they can force accommodation and sound governance.
The Republicans at present have no need to bargain. They have had and continue to have their way on their principal -- arguably only -- political goal: limited government with a strong military and a bellicose foreign policy. That is, in their view, the sole role of government!
But national security involves more than military force and an aggressive, martial foreign policy. Even the Republicans acknowledge energy independence as an element of national security. To this peg, the Democrats must add as elements of national security a strong economy free of excessive deficits and a sustainable environment. The Defense Department itself has recognized that environmental degradation will lead to extreme weather conditions, decreasing global water supplies and soon to increases in international terrorism.
National Security rests on three legs: First, a strong military; second, a sound economy; and third, a viable, sustainable environment. Standing on this stool, the Democrats must insist that the first leg depends upon Republican acceptance and funding of the other two.
The Obama Administration has, in its 2011 budget, proposed a $700 billion defense budget including the funding of three wars: Iraq, Afghanistan, and the War on Terror. Next year, ok. But in fiscal 2012 and the following years, this level of funding for defense must be subject to negotiation. The status quo must no longer assume high levels of defense spending.
It took years for the Republicans to join and sell strong national security and "no new taxes." And having planted this cancer in the American brain, the Republicans reinforced it with the same persistence and focus with which they present their rigid -- and false -- talking points (the stimulus is not working, tax cuts only will restore the economy, etc), deaf to contrary facts and arguments.
The Democrats do not have to commit the same falsehoods. National security does involve economic as well as military strength. New taxes are not a sign of economic weakness and do not prevent economic growth. We cannot afford endless wars or unlimited defense budgets.
Quite simply, Democrats must put national defense into play. The Republicans want big defense expenditures (and endless wars). The defense and wars must be paid for, and the Republicans must vote for the taxes to pay for them. No taxes to pay for them, no wars. Forty-one Democratic senators must say "no" unless balance is brought back to the federal budget.
Holding national defense hostage may be tricky, but the Republicans used a similar tactic just one and a half years ago. The Republicans and the Bush Administration took the country to the edge of economic catastrophe in fall, 2008. And then congressional Republicans played chicken and refused to vote for the bailout to save the financial structure. They won. The Democrats led by Nancy Pelosi, with Hank Paulson down on one knee before her, stepped up to rescue the economy. Unfortunately the Democrats may have to take a similar posture, this on national security, but they have reason on their side. They must force the Republicans to appear to be blocking national defense when they refuse to fund it.
In the future, Defense Secretary Gates should be forced to his knees before the Congressional Republicans, begging them to rescue the defense budget by voting for a tax bill to pay for it. No, the Democrats cannot threaten to cripple our soldiers at war, but they can stop huge discretionary defense spending ($700 billion includes a lot of choices) unless the Republicans accept a broad definition of "National Security" and vote for sound fiscal policies--including tax increases--and rational energy policies, including decreased dependence on both foreign and domestic oil.
Take away the Republican drug of choice, and make them NEED something from government. That is hardball, and its time the Democrats learned to play.