Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Ron Johnson Among Underwear Gnomes

Our man in Wausau, Rob Mentzer, pointed to this article in National Review tonight, which details Senator Ron Johnson's secret plan for ending the government shut-down stalemate and, boy, is it a doozy.

In the spirit of robust debate, we're going to vociferously disagree with Mentzer's assessment of Johnson's strategic maneuvering. In fact, I thought it was so absurd, so rife with blatantly obvious holes that I was convinced that Johnson had outsourced his political operation in Washington to the Underwear Gnomes from a rather memorable episode of South Park. Allow me to jog your memory:

Fair warning, this post is gonna be messy, unedited, and absent copious links I prefer to litter our work. Maybe I'll come back and fix it up. Maybe not. We're shooting from the hip here at The Chief tonight.

First of all, here's some background. Johnson did not enjoy a particularly good shut-down. At one point during the fiasco he reportedly lost his temper at Ted Cruz in closed door meeting with other GOP senators. This led to a stinging rebuke by Erik Eriksson, the RedState.com editor whom has some measure fo influence among conservatives for some reason, who called Johnson a "liar." (With friends like these...) Then Johnson capped off Shut-Down '13 with a really weird interview with Marc Levin which recalled the hey-day of the "awkward silence" sit-com fare c. 2005.

It was during this last interview that Levin gave Johnson the business for not appearing to support Ted Cruz enough in public. Here's the exchange:

“Let me tell you something, senator, because I have to go,” Levin said. “Senator, let me tell you something — if
46 of you people, you Republican senators had stood up shoulder-to-shoulder during the filibuster and made it quite damn clear to Harry Reid and the whole world that you were shoulder-to-shoulder, Republican-to-Republican,then the outcome might have been slightly different.”
At the end of the appearance, the two swapped words about the so-called Johnson strategy, which has yet to be determined in its entirety.“I guess we’ll have to follow the Ron Johnson strategy,” Levin said. “When you figure it out, send it to me, will you?”
“When you figure it out, send it to me,” Johnson shot back.

Got that? Levin's implication is, of course, that Johnson didn't actually have a strategy. He basically accused the Senator of lying to him. Johnson strange, snippy retort -- "When you figure it [i.e. the Johnson Strategy] out, send it to me" -- almost seems to give credence to Levin's accusation.

But today we found out that there was actually a Johnson Plan ... one that was written down on paper and everything. And here it is: 

Step One, according to the document: The House passes a six-month continuing resolution. Attached to the CR is a one-year delay of Obamacare’s individual mandate and a one-year delay of the employer mandate, which President Obama later unilaterally suspended; a bill from the chairman of the House Republican Policy Committee, James Lankford of Oklahoma, to keep the government from shutting down in the event the funding laws expire; a bill from Representative Tom McClintock of California to give top priority to debt payments in order to avoid default amid a stalemate over the debt ceiling; and, finally, the so-called “Vitter amendment,” proposed by Senator David Vitter of Louisiana, to end a federal subsidy to congressional lawmakers and staff for purchasing their health care on the Obamacare exchanges. 
Johnson and others supporting the strategy pushed hard for action on the first step in July, before Congress had departed for its August recess, which would have allowed Republicans to spend the month at home beating the messaging war drum. 
Step Two: Harry Reid rejects the plan and passes a CR without any of the attached policies. 
Step Three: Coming back from the August recess, Republicans make what Johnson calls a “strategic retreat.” We’ve heard the Democrats, the GOP lawmakers would say: They won’t touch Obamacare, so we’re removing the demands to delay the individual and employer mandates. The Republicans would cast their position as trying to prevent a government shutdown, prevent default on the debt, and remove a special perk for Congress.

Now, I know it's easy to criticize the best-made plans of mice and men in retrospect, but it's not difficult to see 
why this plan seemingly got zero traction in Washington: it's patently absurd.

Step 1 has several elements. 1.) Six months worth of continued government funding; 2.) One year Obamacare individual mandate delay; 3.) one year employer mandate delay; 4.) the Langford Bill; 5.) the McClintock bill and 6.) the Vitter Bill.

Elements 1 was not long enough for Dems. They were tired of republicans using the threat of a government shut down to get their way. Elements 2 and were non-starters because it gave the GOP a window in which to take over the Senate after the 2014 midterm elections. The Langford Bill is asinine. The least problematic aspect of the McClintock bill was that many people viewed it as being logistically impossible. The Vitter Bill was shallow posturing, at best.

Dems weren't going to give into any of these, but if you're a GOP Senator who wants to prioritize them in order of importance, then you're going to want fight hardest for the delay because it gives you best possible opportunity for dismantling Obamacare legislatively after a potential Senate take over in 2014 whilst providing you with a massive issue to campaign on between now and then.

As we'll see in Step 3 the delay was the very thing Johnson was willing to abandon first. Again, this would have been a catastrophic.

Step 2 reveals just how absurd this plan is because if presumes a very compliant opposition Leader, which Harry is not.

Johnson's entire strategy pivots around Senator Harry Reid stripping the amendments of a continuing resolution passed by the House and eventually suffering the consequences of an angry electorate, whom Republicans demonize for removing "fiscally responsible" measures from the CR. The problem with this is that, depending on how Reid would have ushered the CR through the Senate, the CR would have gone to committee where it would a.) have stalled and b.) become both parties' albatross, but at least given Democrats the opportunity to paint the House GOP as intransigent. You bet your sweet ass Harry Reid would have found a way to put this ball back into the House GOP's court.

So right away, Johnson's plan is DOA.   

Step 2  is a piece of work since it depends entirely on circumstances Republicans would have absolutely no control over whatsoever. None. Zero. Zilch. Nada. Zip. To assume that the opposition party leader is just going to compliantly go along with your plan of his own volition is preposterous. What if Reid delayed passing the CR until after the August break. Johnson's plan falls apart because the GOP misses a crucial consciously communicate with it's base. It's just too much to expect that Harry Reid, unwittingly or otherwise, would have gone along with Johnson's plan. It's just too important to leave in someone else's hands -- the grand question mark in the Underwear Gnomes unified theory of profit. 

Step 3, however, is where Johnson really brings the crazy. Take a look at this carefully:

Coming back from the August recess, Republicans make what Johnson calls a “strategic retreat.” 

Retreats, strategic or not, don't really seem to resonate with Republicans these days, so right off the bat John's plan suffers from an almost fatal marketing deficiency.

We’ve heard the Democrats, the GOP lawmakers would say: They won’t touch Obamacare, so we’re removing the demands to delay the individual and employer mandates. 

And here's Johnson giving up the most valuable bargaining chip in the GOP's pile, as noted above.

But here's the best part:

The Republicans would cast their position as trying to prevent a government shutdown, prevent default on the debt, and remove a special perk for Congress.

Except the GOP base wanted a government shutdown and they wanted a default! Also, the Langford Bill actually incentivizes government shutdowns and the McClintock bill -- at least in principle -- makes debt limit breaches more likely. It would be like an arsonist standing next to a burning house, torch in hand, claiming that he was burning the house down so that that he wouldn't be able to burn the house down.

There's a reason why Johnson can't seem to drop any names of colleagues who signed on to this plan and that's because it's ridiculous. It's the kind of nonsense that Capitol Hill staffers would conjure up after beer number five of a bull session in Georgetown only to be dismissed wholesale before the waitress comes back with beer number six.

At that point the Republicans would hold firm, watching public opinion and hoping the Democrats would buckle, going along with what were relatively modest demands.

So they would begin the "holding firm" stage of this master plan by conceding an important demand. Always a great idea...

Johnson actually goes on to make several good points on the nature of the Obamacare debate:

As Johnson sees it, waging the fight over what was essentially total repeal of the law “poisoned the well” throughout the shutdown, giving Obama and Reid the upper hand.

That's almost certainly true, but it's hard to sympathize with Johnson's plight here. Total repeal is what the GOP demanded, it's what Republican have been promised and it's what nearly every conservative law-maker in Washington -- including Johnson himself, who has repeated referred to the law as the greatest threat to freedom in his lifetime" -- have advocated for in recent years. When you spend four years riling up your base into a berserker frenzy they're going to expect you deliver sooner or later. 

Johnson is going to catch all sorts of hell from his base on this one. I have no idea what he was thinking showing a reporter this "plan" or what he hopes to accomplish by doing this. His PR strategy in this case seems to me to be just as sound as his legislative strategy during the months leading up to the shutdown.