by wes allison
Times Staff Writer
WASHINGTON — When it comes to President Obama and the Democrats these days, you couldn't knock Republican leaders of Congress off message with a tractor.
â?œIt's pretty clear that their budget spends too much, it taxes too much, and it borrows too much from our kids and grandkids, John Boehner, the House Republican leader from Ohio, said on CBS's Face the Nation on March 8.
We don't think we get out of this recession by spending too much, taxing too much and borrowing too much, Mitch McConnell, his Senate counterpart, intoned on CNBC on Friday.
And so Republicans are going to make the case that not only does the president's budget spend too much, Mike Pence, the No. 3 House Republican, said Wednesday, but it taxes too much, and ultimately, that it borrows too much.
Obama's plans for taxing and spending have galvanized congressional Republicans like no other issue in recent years. The GOP message masters in the House and Senate are coordinating their talking points for the first time anyone can remember, as they strive to convince voters the president's prescriptions for the ailing economy will sicken businesses and families.
It would help, too, if they could make this case before Democrats start showing up at groundbreakings and ribbon-cuttings made possible by money from the massive economic stimulus package Obama signed last month.
Republicans stood nearly united in voting against the $789 billion stimulus package and the $410 billion appropriations bill that Obama signed last week, which will increase federal spending by 8 percent. They also oppose Obama's $3.6 trillion budget request for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1, which outlines the president's priorities and which Congress is expected to consider next month.
Republicans in the House and Senate say feedback from constituents has them convinced their message is on-target, and they point to growing concern about the scope of Obama's proposed budget among Democratic lawmakers as proof.
But the strategy is risky, too. Republicans essentially are banking on Obama's economic strategy to fail. Many contend the stimulus package already has, even though little of the money has reached the streets. And after getting drubbed in the past two elections, this time they sound sure that they've found the secret recipe.
We lost the independent voters in both 2006 and 2008, and President Obama won them, and so he's the president, said Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., Pence's counterpart in the Senate. But I believe this is more spending, more taxes, and more debt than most American families expected or most American families can afford.
It is not easy to battle the leader of the free world, especially when he's still so popular. With no strong national leader of their own, it has fallen to Republicans in Congress to articulate the party's message and lead the GOP back from the wilderness.
They are doing a good job with the first part. Outnumbered Republicans are virtually powerless to stop anything Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats want to do in the House. But they've helped frame the debate for their colleagues in the Senate, where they've stretched debates on the stimulus bill and the omnibus spending bill across two workweeks each, giving them an extra weekend to bash the measures back home and on Sunday talk shows.
Democrats discount Republicans as obstructionists, labeling the GOP the Party of No. But the Republican strategy is the same as Bud Light's during football season â?” just keep pounding the message and hope folks buy what you're selling.
You need repetition, and you need constant familiarity to get it into people's head, said Leonard Steinhorn, a professor at American University and an expert in political communications. They're hoping to nick it to death. Put in enough little cuts, put in enough little doubts that it's going to weaken the Democratic position.
Republicans say they are confident their message is getting through, and cite polls showing that public support for the stimulus package dropped after they began to pick at it.
Constituents also are alarmed when they tell them the president projects a deficit of $1.75-per-trillion this year, the largest ever, members say. (Obama's plan also calls for cutting the deficit in half by 2013, after new tax increases kick in on families making over $250,000, among others.)
The president's new budget is more spending and taxing, and it is registering, said Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite, R-Brooksville. I meet with people back home, and they are very concerned.
But remember Drill, Baby, Drill, the mantra that was going to carry Republicans to victory in 2008? And how during the August recess they forsook fundraising and family vacations to take turns camping out on the darkened House floor to demand a vote on a comprehensive energy bill?
Democrats returned to Washington tanned and ready for the coming election. Republicans just got burned.
Democrats say the Republicans lack credibility to kvetch about Obama's spending plans, given that President George W. Bush turned a surplus into a then-record deficit. The GOP alternatives for resuscitating the economy are based largely on cutting taxes â?” essentially, Bush's policy.
By contrast, Obama contends the nation must invest now in infrastructure, health care reform and new energy sources, even if it means borrowing, to reap cost-savings and efficiencies later.
The Republican message? Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., sputtered. We are in a financial mess because of the fiscal policies of the past eight years. We have to correct it.
Obama's budget provides the framework for some of his most ambitious and expensive goals, such as slowing climate change and remaking health care. Pence and Alexander said targeting the budget now lays the groundwork for battling Democrats over those big-ticket items, and for introducing an alternative Republican budget.
We thought given the magnitude of the issues encompassed in the federal budget, Pence said at a roundtable with Alexander on Wednesday, this was the right battle to lock arms â?¦ to educate the American people about the president's budget â?” that it spends too much, taxes too much, borrows too much.
Wes Allison can be reached at
[email protected] or (202) 463-0577.