woody_zimmerman_118_2007Politics is (or ought to be) a little like medical practice with respect to its first principle, as expressed in the title of this piece. Democrats forgot about this in the euphoric wake of Barack Obama’s “coronation,” two years ago, when the media bowed down at his feet – as if before an “oracle” – with some comparing him to God (or at least “a god”). For two years, the Congress has spent money like drunken sailors (with apologies to tipsy seamen everywhere, whom this simile defames). Taxpayers stood by, aghast, as the cash register sounded a steady “ka-ching, ka-ching.” The national debt doubled, and doubled again, bringing the tab to north of $13 trillion. Annual deficits of over $1 trillion stretch out as far as the eye can see. Nothing seemed able to stop the most expensive spending-spree in the history of mankind. In his first 18 months, Barack Obama racked up more debt than all presidents before him, combined.

All this spending was ostensibly done to “treat” the ailing American economy, “fix” the broken health-care/insurance system, and exert government control over banks and corporations that were said to be ruining us. Investors who had bought GM and Chrysler bonds in good faith were denounced as “rich old guys” and stiffed out of their guaranteed investments. Retired Americans who had paid Medicare taxes for decades were shoved aside so 30 million uninsured people could be given health insurance at low or no cost. Young workers who thought they were healthy enough to do without health insurance woke up to find that (surprise!) they would pay extra taxes unless they bought mandatory insurance. And millions of (would-be) working Americans found that their trust in Democrats to put them back to work had been sadly, desperately, ruinously misplaced.

Finally, Democrats in control of Congress for four solid years just could not manage to extend (or make permanent) the Bush tax cuts of 2002 & ’03. Lefties (including Barack Obama, as both senator and president) wanted to let them expire. Realists wanted to extend them for at least a few years, until the economy rights itself. Conservatives wanted them made permanent. As the Bush-Obama recession settled over the land like a cold, damp blanket, numerous Democrats and all Republicans asked their leadership to bring an extension-bill to the House floor before the election-recess. But Speaker Nancy Pelosi stubbornly refused, maintaining that a lame-duck Congress would deal with the matter after the election.

Meanwhile, President Obama and Vice-president Joe Biden have stumped around the country, basically accusing small businessmen of “treason” for declining to invest the $2 trillion in business cash at their disposal to create jobs that might get the economy moving again. When Chamber of Commerce leaders argued that business could not invest wisely without knowing the tax-climate for the coming year, White House operatives accused the CoC of being subsidized by “foreign money.” This is how the game is played in Washington – denial of the realities of actual policy and legislation, followed by scurrilous accusations of wrongdoing against innocent parties. If doctors practiced medicine in this manner, they would end up in jail. Certainly, they would have no patients.

Enough of all that “medical history,” however. The voters have now given their erstwhile political “doctors” a grade for their treatment of the public weal over the last two years. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell says that grade was an “F,” and millions of voters seemed to concur. By dint of elimination, Republicans have now been elevated to primary physician. What will their treatment plan be?

That is the $64 billion-question, of course. Anything I say here is informed speculation, at best. Besides, I’m not a doctor – either medical or political. I’m not a chicken, either, and I certainly can’t lay an egg. But I do know if one is fresh or not. Essentially, that’s how the new GOP “treatment” plan will be evaluated – call it the “rotten-egg test.” Millions of Americans will be watching, testing the wind, and sniffing Republicans’ economic policies to see if they pass the smell-test. They’ve been burned by one set of political rubes, and they don’t want to get burned again by a new set. Republicans have an opportunity here, but they will have to tread very, very carefully as they move forward with their legislative program.

So far, that program – if it can be called that – seems to have three prongs: (1) repeal or defund Obamacare; (2) preserve the Bush tax-cuts; (3) cut federal spending. I offer a brief look at each of these.

Repeal Obamacare. This effort – which has no possible chance of succeeding, short of divine intervention – is two parts demonstration for the Republican base and three parts forward-looking political ploy to make Democrats defend this unpopular program of the Obama administration right through the 2012 presidential campaign. It’s a little like Obama and the Democrats invoking George W. Bush as the cause of all of the country’s economic problems. Democrats wore out the Bush-Bogeyman by putting it up there every 5 minutes. Republicans have to be careful not to do the same thing with Obamacare. Of course – what do I know? Clever GOP tacticians might actually pull together a coalition of their members, plus conservative and moderate Democrats, to repeal this 2500-page monstrosity. Anything is possible. Unfortunately, not every outcome is equally likely. At some point voters will see the attempts to repeal Obamacare as a fool’s errand and a waste of valuable time. Outright repeal – desirable, in my view – will have to wait until Republicans have both the Congress and the White House.

Defund Obamacare. Anesthetizing the monster by taking away its funding, then taking it apart piece by piece, might be a better plan. This cannot be done haphazardly, lest Republicans make a worse mess than Democrats did by passing it. But haphazardly is how politicians usually operate. If most of them were as methodical as engineers or doctors, they wouldn’t be in politics. If the repeal-effort fails – very likely, in my estimation – Republicans need a coherent plan to dismantle Obamacare. This should not be drawn up by junior staffers of some House committee. There is a genuine trap here. GOP leaders need to beware.

Preserve the Bush Tax-cuts. Certainly it was swinish of Democrats – particularly in the House – to leave the Bush tax-cuts unextended. Mr. Obama made a big deal out of insisting that the lower rates should not be extended for the “rich” – i.e., people who earn more than $200,000 a year. It was a nice political pose for his political base. The stand-off kept the 2000 rates on schedule to resume on January 1, 2011. Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s attempt to keep the voters’ attention off the incoming tax-bomb by not allowing an extension-bill to reach the House floor did not succeed. The electorate gave her and her compadres a drubbing anyway – or perhaps it was because of that cynical ploy. Mrs. Speaker promised that a lame-duck session would deal with the issue after the election, but I’ll be pretty amazed if she shows up to preside. (I think she’s outta here.) I even have doubts that a lame-duck session can convene a quorum, since so many members have been defeated. However all that might turn out, Republicans will be wise not to crow too loudly if Mr. Obama bends to the inevitable and signs an extension of the entire suite of Bush rates. It’s worth recalling that Republicans had at least four years to make those rates permanent, but couldn’t get it done. I have no problem arguing that this failure helped put the Democrats in charge in 2006. It was a true failure of leadership.

Cut Federal Spending. This is the great war-cry of the Tea Party movement that swept across the land like a tsunami. I agree with the goal entirely. So do millions of Americans. It simply must be done. The problem is that it’s a lot easier to say than to do. Ronald Reagan once said that a federal program was the closest thing to eternal life that we’re likely to find on earth. Truer words were never spoken. Republicans will have the devil’s own job trying to dismantle or even cut any programs. Every program has its own constituency that is prepared to fight to the death to preserve it and its full funding. The more programs a GOP Congress tries to cut at once, the more uproar will ensue. This will scare many representatives and senators – especially new ones who were swept in on the Tea Party wave. The only way any serious cutting can be done is by convening a bipartisan “blue ribbon panel” to recommend spending cuts of some target amount. This will give the effort a patina of “fairness,” so it has a chance of succeeding. This actually worked a few years ago when DoD needed to close some military bases. By setting up a committee to recommend the closures, and applying certain procedural rules, Congress was able to avoid a political donnybrook over specific bases. Spending cuts will be very difficult to make. I would never say “impossible,” but it is one of Republicans’ greatest challenges.

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Republicans have set out a tall order for themselves – to roll back the cost and reach of the federal government and repeal some of the Obama administration’s worst excesses. They can expect Democrats to fight them like tigers, every step of the way. And voters will be able to see if they have succeeded. It’s going to take a lot of political guts to do this. If voters want success, they will need to stand on the firing line with their representatives and give them support. Indifference will no longer do it.