Monday, February 23, 2015

The GOP's Argument Strategy (DHS Shutdown)

The Omnivore promised to talk about the various lines of rhetoric around the pending DHS-Funding showdown. Right now Republicans (on line, in real life, and in various media outlets) are talking about why the Democrats should be blamed or why the Republicans should see this through. Let's take a look at some of these. We've got:

  • Harry Reid Won't Even Allow DISCUSSION!
  • Democrats Choose Illegal Aliens Over the Border Patrol!
  • The Dems Want A 'Clean Bill'--Since When?
  • We Have To De-Fund Amnesty Because It Is Illegal!
  • We've Been Given A Mandate! We've GOTTA FIGHT!!
  • Obama / Senate Dems NEVER EVEN TRIED To Compromise! Why Should We??

Harry Reid Won't Even Allow DISCUSSION!
This is quickly becoming a favorite in the conservative media. In this formulation the problem with the Democrats isn't that they don't like what's in the DHS funding bill--but that they won't even allow debate or amendments on it. They're just throwing a tantrum and locking everything down if they don't get 'their way.'

The battle cry is 'Let's at least have the debate!'

Relevant Facts: The apparent reason that Harry Reid / Senate Democrats won't "have a debate" about amendments in the bill is because they consider the amendment to de-fund amnesty "so toxic" that they don't even want it on the floor. Perhaps this is because they are afraid that the optics around illegal immigration could 'distract' from the optics around 'government shutdown.'

The truth is that bills passed by the House (as the DHS draft was) usually do get 'watered down' in the Senate. This process is pretty universal and would still allow for a filibuster if the watering down was not enough for the Democrats.

Probably the game-plan here is to prevent the somewhat more sober Senate Republicans from a 'compromise' where they remove Obama's latest Executive Order but allow the earlier one to stand (the first was the 'Dreamer' EO. The second is for their parents & illegal parents of legal children). This might break through the Democrat's blockade.

Merits Assessment: The Senate Democrats are being obstructionist on this count--they could give ground, have the debate, and then, if no one moved, filibuster. On the other hand, McConnell could return to the bill to the House and ask for the prospective compromise to be built in after trying 3 (tonight 4) times to break the blockade. The fact that Boehner won't consider it (or, at least, says he won't) is about equally telling.

Optics Assessment: Hard-sell. While the line is good ("no debate! He won't even talk!!") the fact is that it relies on some sense of congressional maneuvering and has to kind of explain why Senate Democrats don't like the DHS bill (which opens the topic up to: "If DHS funding is so important, why do Amnesty-rollback at the same time?"). While that question has an answer, it may not sell everyone and can make it look like hostage taking. Finally, the line of attack does NOT pin-the-tail-on-Obama. Having people dislike Harry Reid is easy (just keep showing his picture with that horrible eye-injury)--but it doesn't move the dial an congressional approval or 2016.

Overall Assessment [ C ]. The 'So what?' question--the question about the net impact of the Senate Democrats refusing debate--has a less than stunning answer: The answer is that republicans would like to have the debate on the Senate floor so they could make their case to the American public about immigration instead of about funding DHS (which is, right now, at least in public, what we are talking about). They can, of course, do this anyway on talk shows and the like--but they can't do it in a way that forces the Democrats to engage on Obama's Amnesty. Right now if the R's talk about amnesty then they're giving up a huge part of their story (that they did not attach an amendment to the DHS funding bill that would make it toxic to the Democrats).

The Senate Democrats are under no particular obligation to give them the platform they want and there do not seem to be "rogue Democratic Senators" calling for the bill to move forward.

The Democrats Choose Illegal Aliens Over DHS / Border Patrol Agents!
This is close to an actual headline from The Daily Signal. In this case the line of argumentation is simple: the choice the Democrats (and Obama) have is simple: DHS or Illegal Aliens. They've made their choice: Aliens Uber Agents!

Merits Assessment: This is essentially true given that the House has told Senate Democrats to 'choose only one' and by failing to act they have effectively chosen 'amnesty.' On the other hand, they are eliding the fact that the House could have sent just the DHS funding and/or just the Amnesty-de-fund bill. Binding them together is a legitimate legislative maneuver but it is still a maneuver.

Optics Assessment: This would work better if the House Republicans (and Senate Republicans) didn't already have a rep for shutting things down over legislation they didn't like. They tried this with Obamacare and it blew up in their faces (commenters will tell people the GOP won the mid-term elections because of this--but the actual Congress-people know better). This essentially only sells to the base.

Overall Assessment [ D+ ]. The problem here is that it's the old "A guy has a gun to your daughter and your wife and says 'choose one or I'll shoot both'!" The correct answer is "I punch out the gunman." When the guy asking the question goes "You CAN'T DO THAT IN MY HYPOTHETICAL!" you answer "Mu," punch him out--and then deny any of it ever happened.

The Dems Want A Clean Bill?? Since When!??
A line of defense that comes up from time to time is that (a) the House is under no obligation whatsoever to present a 'clean bill,' that (b) the Democrats are the bill-rider champions so it's hypocrisy! and sometimes (c) that the bill, passed by the House, is clean by virtue of ... being passed by the House or something (not sure).

Merits Assessment: Leaving the question of whose bills have been more or less clean aside as irrelevant, the problem here is that while the House can send any bill it wants, the Democrats are not required to vote on it. It is also clear that (a) the bill is not 'clean' (there has to be a specific amendment preventing the use of funds for Obama's Amnesty--not just a lack of funds disbursed) and (b) it seems a pretty sure bet that an actually-clean bill would pass both houses easily.

Optics Assessment: Catastrophic. Trying to argue about whether the bill is clean or not plays directly into the Democrat's hands. It opens the door for asking if, in a hypothetical reverse scenario, a House controlled by Democrats sent a bill to the GOP congress that gave illegal aliens the amnesty Obama did, if the Senate would just be morally obligated to pass it.

Overall Assessment [ F ]. This is nonsensical as an objection. It treats any rider--especially one on a government agency funding bill--as identical to any other when everyone knows in this specific case these are very specific bills and amendments for our political moment.

We Have To De-Fund Amnesty Because It's ILLEGAL!
In this case the argument is that (a) Obama's Amnesty is illegal but that (b) HE WON'T STOP and (c) THE COURTS CAN'T STOP HIM! In this case it's necessary to cut the illegal and unconstitutional activity off at the source. This is sometimes backed up with "Obama saying 22 times" he couldn't "do what he did."

Merits Assessment: The Omnivore isn't a lawyer constitutional or otherwise but a Texas court has ruled the action illegal. For now, that's good enough for The Omnivore so far as that goes. However, as a requirement to de-fund the action, it doesn't make much sense: if the illegal actions are on hold (they are) and a stay may be hard to get (it probably will be, a judicial stay from a higher court is usually to maintain the status quo, so understands The Omnivore) then why not let the courts kill this thing? Why jeopardize DHS?

Optics Assessment: This would play better if people hadn't called everything Obama did illegal / unconstitutional and yet can't get impeachment or anything else going. If Obama shot a man just to watch him die (and did it on TV) he'd be arrested immediately (wouldn't he?). This must be some other kind of illegal--like the kind that isn't actually criminally illegal? This is the optical problem with this approach.

Overall Assessment [ D+ ]. There is a nuanced argument that if Obama gets his stay then the court case will take too long and the policy will be in effect and harder to reverse. Nuance, though, is for losers--so trying to make this argument in light of the court-case is harder than if there were no court case. It also makes it look like the speaker is actually afraid Obama will win the case.

We Have A Mandate! We Gotta Fight!
Here the argument is "Look, this is a fight we're right to have--so we're gonna have it. If DHS is the focal point? So be it." In this case the argument is that the 2014 elections gave the GOP a mandate against executive over-reach and so they are not just empowered to use DHS as a bargaining chip-they're required to.

Merits Assessment: The Democrats counter with "2014 was low-turnout so you do NOT have a mandate" or that "Obama won big in 2012 so he's got a mandate too, right?" but the fact remains that no matter what happens in an election the winners usually declare a mandate and the losers find some reason it's not so. Mandate-schmandate (expanded background checks for guns poll well too).

On the other hand, if you can sell it? Sell it. Amnesty doesn't poll well so, hey?

Optics Assessment: This would be an easier sell if the GOP had not shutdown the government over Obamacare. Obamacare also did/does not poll well but the shutdown, it turned out, polled even worse. This isn't the same thing exactly--but it'll look the same to a lot of people and that's not entirely the media's fault. Declaring that you have to fight--and must therefore jeopardize Homeland Security--is a very, very risky road to traverse.

Overall Assessment [ C+ ]. The reason this gets a comparatively high score is that (a) The GOP certainly has a mandate from their voting base and (b) they might be able to sell that mandate to The People on its merits alone--also, it is completely honest. Obama very well may be overreaching (The Omnivore thinks so), the GOP wants the fight, and DHS is probably the only way to force it. On the other hand, runs a deadly risk of reducing damage-control options if it goes wrong.

Polling suggests . . . it will go wrong (and the GOP's messaging skills are likely not up to this either).

This is based on the fact that of 230,000 DHS employees, 200,000 will keep working under a "shutdown"--just without pay (until it is resolved). Sometimes this is augmented with "They're not keeping us safe anyway" (because amnesty) or "DHS is part of Big-Government Overreach so KILL IT!"

Merits Assessment: For a few days of shutdown, it's true this won't be instantly catastrophic in the same sense that just sending everyone home would be--but (a) even this maneuvering is sapping morale (The Omnivore knows someone who was threatened with furlough and said it was brutal on the employees even with just the threat) and (b) having people working, unpaid, is going to degrade things badly nearly instantly.

Also (c) the assumption is someone will cave instantly. In the case of the conservatives who aren't saying 'Let It Burn' they're assuming Obama will cave. What if he doesn't? Are they assuming the GOP will cave (probably yes--but cynically). If no one caves the 'fake shutdown' will quickly become 'real.' The Omnivore gives is less than 3 weeks.

Optics Assessment: Bad. The problem here is that people are going around saying "Don't DO This. It'll Be Bad." These are DHS people. These are Democrats. These are some Republicans. The minority saying "No big deal" look either deluded or just at-odds-with-other messaging. There's also the big question of: If it's no big deal, why will anyone cave? Why is it leverage?

The answer is: "Uh, well, Obama better cave--but the interim time period won't kill us."

That message--the real underlying statement--is a loser.

Overall Assessment [ F ]. Arguing that a DHS shutdown isn't important and/or isn't a shutdown by part of your team weakens the logic for the other half and just sounds like preemptive excuse making. It's a defense that actually weakens the defense.

Obama / Senate Democrats NEVER Tried To Compromise!
The argument that the House and Senate shouldn't try to cooperate with Senate Democrats or Obama because Obama rammed Obamacare down everyone's throat comes up from time to time. Usually it's used when people accuse the House of making "unreasonable demands" in their bill.

Merits Assessment: The Keystone-XL pipeline bill just passed with bi-partisan support (although Obama has said he will veto it). The make up of the Democratic voters wasn't all "Blue Dogs" either (the dogs are almost non-existent now, anyway). It shows that there can be bi-partisan support--even against Obama.

Of course the DHS-Amnesty plan isn't like that: it's a direct reversal of Obama's EO in return for, well, nothing any Democrat would want (unless they just dislike the Amnesty idea--which none of them seem to yet). Maybe if the House sweetened the bill with something?

Optics Assessment: The GOP Tea Party wing enjoyed the "Party of Hell No" title for a little while and took the government-shutdown plan through to completion. The optics of saying that the Democrats cannot be compromised with are a tough sell. Now, you can show a lot of stats that say different things (and these stats are not lies)--but the optics of this go against the GOP from the start because they owned the original shutdown.

Overall Assessment [ D-]. The real problem here is that there is no attempt 'to compromise' with Democrats on this. Saying "We don't have to because you never did" is fine if you can pass your legislation without compromise. If you can't? Well, then it turns out you do in fact need to compromise. As a reason why the Democrats should roll over, it doesn't make its case.

The Omnivore's Assessment
The truth is that the GOP probably thought that in the wake of a crushing defeat (the mid-terms) Obama would be chastened and the Democrats would be in disarray. That hasn't happened. As a result the conditions that called for the original Continuing Resolution are still in play--just not as powerfully (the Republicans now control the Senate as well--just not by enough).

In this event, though, that's even worse since it serves to highlight the rift between the House (which answers more to the party's base) and the Senate (which answers more to the entire Republican party--including its more moderate members). It also serves to highlight how important holding the Oval Office really is--something that with 2016 rolling towards us is going to be a big part of everyone's mental calculation on risk-mitigation and damage control.

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