Politics & Policy

An Open Letter to the House GOP

Accept the victory and move on.

As someone who understands the pressures and difficulties you have been going through, I want to say, “Congratulations.” You won, and so did the country.

Absent some major miscalculations, within the next few days there will be official acknowledgement of what has already happened.

At the beginning of the debt-ceiling debate, a realistic, optimistic outcome essentially would have been this: The Republicans would take the initiative and put their plan before the American people. The debt-ceiling increase would be accompanied by corresponding spending cuts. There would be no new taxes. You would drive a hard bargain in the face of unrelenting presidential and Democratic demagoguery — some of it on national television — drawing the attention and focus of the American people to the truth about our country’s fiscal and economic situation. Sure, people would initially ask, “Why are the Republicans now willing to take this thing to the wire when a debt-limit increase has usually been pro forma?” But at the end of the day, more Americans than ever before would understand what is going to happen to us as a country if we continue our current path.

In this optimistic scenario, President Obama’s duplicity would become apparent, and he’d be politically diminished as a result. With his eyes firmly fixed on his own reelection, his political journey would take him from first, calling for a budget with billions in new spending, to second, demanding a “clean” debt-limit bill with no cuts, to third, a proposal for a “big deal,” including vague promises of trillions in spending cuts, to fourth — in order to ensure that such a deal was never accepted — making a demand for billions in additional “revenues” over and above what he previously agreed to accept.

Still, you would stand firm. The president would have miscalculated, a strategic blunder that, along with his petulance, left him marginalized. Obama would make a transparent scramble to get back to the head of the parade. There would be last-minute plans and rejections, but, at the end of the day, the president and the Senate Democrats would reveal that they are willing to do almost anything to push the debt-ceiling limit past the next election, thereby avoiding having to face the electorate again on this issue.

My friends, within the next few days, all of this will have happened. I respectfully suggest that you rake in your chips, stuff them in your pockets, and tell the dealer to deal the next hand.

“Is this the best deal we could have obtained?” you might ask. I suggest that you don’t run the risk of finding out.

Yes, it’s true that the White House is using overwrought and misleading implications, and we’re still a long way from default.  But do you really want to spend the next several months going on record as to which discretionary-spending programs (including the military) the administration should cut as much as 20, 30, or 40 percent? This is not the way to downsize. The political process won’t tolerate it, in part because this approach would require you to ask the American people to put aside their proclivity for divided government and trust Republicans to govern for the next couple of decades, which is what it will take to get us out of this mess. Taking huge, unnecessary risks like this is not consistent with long-term political success.

Yes, perhaps S&P and Moody’s are being manipulated and apparently have newly found religion regarding our long-term fiscal prospects. But by their own criteria, they should already have downgraded the United States, because until now, we have not shown the political will to address entitlements. No one knows what a downgrade will cause. The behavior of bond and stock markets is based in large part upon perception. Historically, even relatively small financial events have had unforeseen consequences. So have large ones. Conservatives, especially, should be mindful of unintended consequences.

Finally, you might point out that things are still in flux. The final deal could come in one phase or two, and we don’t know the exact numbers. My point is, it does not matter that much. A deal will incorporate your — our — fiscally conservative principles, and set us on the right path for our country’s long, necessary journey.

There is only so much you can do in this deal. Put it into perspective. Right now we are on a path to a $26 trillion debt in ten years, and this is using bogus assumptions about growth and interest payments. The federal government spends over $10 billion a day. We have over $70 trillion in unfunded Medicare liabilities. A problem of this size can be dealt with only by persuading the American people what must be done on a consistent basis over a long period of time. It can’t be done with fits and starts and silver bullets. The issue is not where we will be when the debt-ceiling bill is done, it is where we will be in ten years.

We will never achieve entitlement or tax reform with a doctrinaire liberal in the White House. Any agreements to do so in “out years” would probably be unenforceable even if agreement were achieved. And we can only do so much while controlling one half of one branch of government. Ladies and Gentlemen of the House Republicans, you have laid some great groundwork to rectify both of those situations. Now it is the time to accept a well-won victory and move on.


Your friend,

Fred Thompson

— Fred Thompson, who represented Tennessee in the U.S. Senate from 1994 to 2003, is an actor, lawyer, and political commentator.


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