How Republicans Can Win the Shutdown Showdown

When it comes to most issues coming before Congress, my personal sympathies lie very much with the Republican Party. I'd be delighted to see Obamacare repealed (or at least modified in very significant ways), an end to talk of tax increases, and have the president and congressional Democrats agree to additional comprehensive spending cuts.

Needless to say, I'm not going to get what I want. Obamacare, train wreck that it is, will mostly go into force over the next few months. Big new spending cuts are unlikely. Unless they really want to destroy their party -- my party -- Republicans will also have to agree to a debt-ceiling hike. If a government shutdown takes place, as now seems very likely, it will probably hurt the Republican Party far more than the Democrats.

The big problem, as I see it, is that many Republicans want things that the administration simply has no reason to give them. (And, in the case of the debt ceiling, I think the President is right to refuse to negotiate.) So, if they want to both win and move the country in the right direction, Republicans should ask for things that the president might actually be willing to give. In this regard, two items stand out: Social Security reform and approval of the Keystone XL Pipeline.

Social Security, the single largest government program in the world by many measures, faces serious but not fatal long-term problems. The system can be stabilized for a fair amount of time by either increases the taxes used to support it -- a measure that would likely penalize workers of modest means and place a drag on the economy -- or making genuine reforms. Doing nothing, which seems to be the preferred solution of most Democrats and more than a few Republicans, will make tax increases almost inevitable when the system is unable to pay all promised benefits sometime in the next 20 or so years. Real reforms would probably include reducing benefits for those who don't need them (no reason Warren Buffett should be getting a check), relating them them to income in some fashion, adding some incentives for individuals to save more privately and establishing a "minimum benefit" for those who work their a long time at low wages. The savings from even modest reforms could be immense and a properly reformed program could likely provide a nice economic boost (more private investment), increase help for the poor, and stabilize the country's overall finances. Republicans can use the current fiscal crisis to demand the beginnings of real reforms.

The Obama administration's constant dithering over the Keystone XL pipeline, likewise, is a perfect example of its tendency to put environmental concerns ahead of prosperity. The pipeline is not an economic panacea and, like any major project related to an extractive industry, it will likely do some environmental damage. But its overall environmental impact is probably less than that of shipping the oil it would carry and its economic benefits outweigh its costs anyway. Approving it, furthermore, would help convince the world that the United States is and remains open for business. Refusing to approve it as part of a deal to keep the government open and raise the debt ceiling would make the Obama administration look petty at best.

Right now, the politics of a government shut down look bad for Republicans those of a debt default seem positively awful. Without a change in strategy, Republicans are going to lose badly in the court of public opinion. By making some reasonable demands of the Obama administration, however, Republicans in Congress could turn a likely defeat into a very real victory for themselves in the country.