In a year in which Washington will be dominated by loose talk of federal largesse and limitations, congressional Republicans face an image challenge: how best to argue the case for budgetary austerity without coming across as . . . well, too austere.
To answer that question, let’s turn to another contact sport – football – and the curious case of Manti Te’o, the former Notre Dame linebacker.
As recently as early January, Te’o was in a most enviable position as far as his professional stock stood. In addition to leading his team to an undefeated regular season and a spot in the national title game, the linebacker had endured an incredible tale of personal woe – the death of his grandmother, followed a day later by the passing of his leukemia-stricken girlfriend. Te’o not only played through his grief, but took his game to a higher level – so high that NFL scouts rated him a top-ten pick in next month’s draft. With the help of Notre Dame’s publicity machine, Te’o was the runner-up for the Heisman Trophy, a rarity for a defensive player.
And then it all came crashing down.
The girlfriend, whom the media had turned into this generation’s George Gipp, never really existed. The “relationship” was in fact an Internet hoax (“catfishing”, it’s called), forcing Te’o to answer a lot of awkward questions about his character and gullibility. Add the personal drama to his underwhelming performances on the field in the championship game and off the field at the draft combine, and Te’o is now projected as a mid-to-late first-round pick at best.
Here’s the tie to the Republicans’ plight in Washington. Te’o could have taken ownership of his image problem – say, doing a Super Bowl ad spoofing the “catfish” debacle. Instead, there was an uncomfortable interview with Katie Couric, followed by some edgy questions at the NFL’s draft combine about the football star’s sexuality. Instead of owning the controversy, the controversy owned the linebacker.
The concept of “ownership” isn’t something new to politics. Sarah Palin and Bob Dole did cameos on “Saturday Night Live” to show they could take a joke (curiously, perhaps tellingly, the two Clinton’s haven’t). More recently, there’s Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and his on-air water break. Rubio could have declared war on the media for turning one gulp of water into a sea of bad press. Instead, he cleverly turned with the skid – literally turning water in wine by selling water bottles online, the proceeds going to his political action committee.
Which leads us to this year’s budget wrangle.
Republicans are justified in feeling they won the sequester battle. President Obama and his administration looked foolish in cooking up hell scenarios of nonexistent pay cutsfor Capitol Hill janitors and pink slips for teachers, to say nothing of breaking the hearts of sixth-graders in Waverly, Iowa, by screwing up their Washington field trip.
Score this round to the GOP.
But that doesn’t mean Republicans are in a position to win the budget war.
First, there’s the question of how Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan will fare in yet another entitlements debate that, historically, has played to the Democrats’ advantage (think: “Mediscare” in the 2012 and 1996 election cycles).
Second, what happens when the painful spending cuts, unseen as the sequestration deadline passed, actually materialize? Will the public side with cut-happy Republicans, or the President and his party who most likely will play their safety-net victim card. Will Republicans stand their ground on budget cuts or start backpedaling – i.e., maintain ownership of fiscal conservatism or abandon the faith?
While at least one poll shows the public embracing the idea of a 5% sequester-like cut (but not so much the defense budget), Republican congressional approval was all of 12% in February, or about one-fourth Obama’s 46%. The good news: Obama’s below 50% for the first time in four months. The bad news: only one in eight voters naturally sides with the House and Senate GOP.
For Republicans, perhaps it’s time to raise the profile of a member of Congress who passionately studies the budget, goes to the trouble of weighing the merits if its endless line items, but gets limited play in most fiscal conversations: Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn.
Every fall, Coburn releases a “Wastebook” detailing 100 examples of federal waste, mismanagement and favors for special interests. Add his one-man war on earmark spending, and the physician-turned politician who swears he’ll stick to his term-limits pledge and not seek a third term in 2016 won’t win many popularity contests on Capitol Hill.
Which is what makes Coburn an attractive surrogate: he hates how Congress goes about its business, so does the public. Why not put the man ho has no taste for pork front and center?
This isn’t a new concept as far as Washington is concerned. From 1975-1987, Wisconsin Sen. William Proxmire issued monthly “Golden Fleece Awards” – citations for especially nonsensical federal spending. My favorite: the National Science Foundation spending $84,000 on a study on love, which prompted Proxmire to note:
“I object to this not only because no one – not even the National Science Foundation – can argue that falling in love is a science; not only because I'm sure that even if they spend $84 million or $84 billion they wouldn't get an answer that anyone would believe. I'm also against it because I don't want the answer. I believe that 200 million other Americans want to leave some things in life a mystery, and right on top of the things we don't want to know is why a man falls in love with a woman and vice versa.”
Twenty-five years after the “Golden Fleece’s” retirement, advances in media and technology allow members of Congress to spread the word about wasteful spending in ways that Proxmire’s paper press releases couldn’t and didn’t achieve. There’s nothing stopping Republicans from daily – even hourly – citations of grill sergeants, “robos-quirrels” and cow burps found hidden inside department budgets. Add up the waste, calculate and translate in terms of keeping national parks open and White House tours operational. It’s another way for Republicans to educate Americans as to what taxpayers can live without.
A purist will note that these and other citations of profligate spending won’t balance the federal budget. And they’re right. But that’s not the point. In order to claim the high ground on fiscal policy, the GOP must embrace austerity, not steer away from it. That means steering the public toward recognition that not all spending cuts are cruel or uncalled for.
Follow Bill Whalen on Twitter: @hooverwhalen.