Biden's Rope-A-Dope Strategy Still Working

[ Posted Monday, May 15th, 2023 – 16:21 UTC ]

President Joe Biden continues to goad House Republicans into doing exactly what he wants them to do. This is a bit of rather astonishing political jiu-jitsu which has only been possible because House Republicans refuse to publicly admit exactly what they want to slash in the federal budget. If Kevin McCarthy's House Republicans had kept their campaign promises and passed a budget as one of their first orders of business, then Biden wouldn't even have this opportunity (he'd have other opportunities, depending on what cuts Republicans were proposing, but they'd all be out in the open in that case). This week, Biden continuing to heap scorn on the Republican budget plans may serve up another victory for him, which clueless Republicans are going to try to tout as their own victory. Biden, though, has already moved on and has picked a new target. He will likely continue to do this for endless line items in the federal budget (with an emphasis on the ones that Republicans have traditionally supported).

Politico reported on this today, while completely buying in to the GOP spin with their headline: "House Republicans plan to debut their veterans spending bill this week, strategically undermining one of Joe Biden's talking points against them in the debt limit fight." But who is really undermining whom, here? Here is how they reported it:

The White House has favored a talking point on the House GOP's debt demands: that the party wants to cut money for veterans.

Republicans have already labeled that a lie. And it's tricky messaging, given the House bill only laid out a broad $1.47 trillion ceiling for the upcoming fiscal year, without details on cuts to specific programs.

Now GOP leaders are about to more definitively undercut that Democratic criticism.

On Wednesday, the House's spending panel plans to approve the bill that funds the Department of Veterans Affairs and military construction projects, likely with a hearty boost. By moving forward on that legislation, Republicans will bolster their counter-argument to the president, as Biden targets swing-district voters with claims that GOP lawmakers want to gut funding for the country's more than 16 million military veterans.

The veterans funding bill is only one of the dozen spending measures Congress will need to enact to fund the government this year, and House Republicans have put most of the others on hold during the debt limit debate. That means GOP leaders can claim they support funding increases for veterans programs, along with pushing a drastic decrease in overall spending -- without actually detailing the cuts (which is, of course, the actually difficult part).

The reality is a lot closer to my headline, though, because once again Biden has essentially tricked Republicans into preserving federal spending -- the exact opposite of what they are ostensibly trying to do, and doing instead exactly what Biden is trying to accomplish. They wind up doing his bidding, in other words.

This started at the State Of The Union speech. Biden trolled Republicans into very vocally offering up support for not touching Social Security and Medicare funding in the next budget. That set aside an enormous percentage of the entire budget, right from the get-go. And Republicans are now trapped in this position -- Donald Trump is even out there making political hay over Ron DeSantis's past support for Social Security and Medicare cuts, which used to be a fairly ordinary Republican position to take (back in the days of Paul Ryan, and even before).

The next chunk of the budget that got walled off from any cuts happened when Republicans basically shamed each other into pledging not to cut the funding. Because, after all, it'd be a strange day indeed when the Republican Party offered up huge cuts to the Pentagon's budget. This put another huge chunk of the federal budget off-limits to the budget hawks.

After Republicans passed their debt ceiling bill in the House, Biden pounced. Because it was nowhere near a full budget -- or even a slimmed down budgetary blueprint -- it was just a wish list of little tiny stuff Republicans wanted to cut, along with a catchall: "Oh, and we'll somehow get to our big number by cutting a bunch of other stuff too... which we will outline later, not now." All of "that other stuff" is everything else the federal government does -- which is a long list of stuff. A lot of which (like farm aid, just to name an obvious one) is stuff Republicans strongly approve of.

What Joe Biden started doing is picking things off that list and accusing Republicans of wanting to slash funding for them. This started with veterans benefits, since (much like the Pentagon budget) the Republican Party used to bill itself as the champion defender of the military, both current and former. They would pretty much have to abandon that stance if they suggested gigantic cuts to the V.A. budget, after all. So they're moving this week to pass that one bill (while not moving forward on any of the other individual budget bills). Which is all a big victory for Biden, because now he can very plausibly claim: "I stopped the Republicans from slashing the V.A. budget."

As I said, Biden's even already moved on from this. He's got a new GOP-favored poster child to troll Republican budget-cutters with: the Border Patrol. And all other federal law enforcement that deals with various aspects of the border (such as the A.T.F., or the D.E.A., or Customs). Since Republicans have still not put their actual proposed cuts on the table, then all of those things are on the chopping block. And Republicans are supposed to be pushing for across-the-board cuts, which means all of those things are going to take a big hit in the GOP budget (eventually, when they finally get around to it). It is a valid point for Biden to make -- just as long as Republicans haven't publicly released their whole budget.

But without even really lifting a finger (other than politically), Biden has already saved from the budgetary chopping block several rather large and important things the federal government does: Social Security, Medicare, the Pentagon, and now it seems the V.A. can be added to that list. He accomplished all of that politically (with the possible exception of the Pentagon, which was admittedly more the media and Republicans shaming themselves than Biden), before the big budget talks with McCarthy even really began.

So again I ask: who is undermining whom, here?

Biden is defending federal spending from extreme cuts. That's been his goal all along. When he rope-a-dopes the House GOP into walling off these things from the budgetary axe, they are doing exactly what he wants them to do.

With every single one of these, the problem of what to do with all the others gets worse for Republicans, too. That's an important thing to point out. Because every time a large chunk of the federal budget is walled off from cuts, it means for Republicans to achieve their target number they'll have to make even more drastic cuts to everything else. It's a zero-sum game. If the V.A. is protected, it means bigger cuts to the Border Patrol. If the Border Patrol is then protected from cuts too, it means bigger cuts to farm aid. If farm aid is protected, it means more Draconian cuts to everything else.

The New York Times recently provided a helpful example of this. They ran the Republican target numbers against the entire discretionary federal budget. If every agency were to be cut equally, this would mean an 18 percent drop in everything, including the Pentagon. If the Pentagon, veterans and border security were all walled off from budget cuts, it would mean a whopping 51 percent cut -- to everything else. That is the brutality of the math Republicans are having to cope with, and that is precisely why they have not made their actual budget plans public yet (because they must know there is going to be a public outcry when they do).

President Biden has no shortage of programs and departments he can target Republicans with in the same fashion, and by doing so paint them as extremists. The more times Republicans take the bait and wall off another line item, the math problem just gets worse for everything that is left. By doing this, Biden is undermining the ability of Republicans to make their political case that they are the responsible ones in Washington -- and not the other way around.

-- Chris Weigant


Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


2 Comments on “Biden's Rope-A-Dope Strategy Still Working”

  1. [1] 
    nypoet22 wrote:

    Well, they're not. That's the thing about politics, reality intrudes once in awhile

  2. [2] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    Republicans are in a very responsible position vis-a-vis US economic policy - when it comes to the cult of economic failure, Republicans are always responsible.

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