Did GOP Lose First Round of Budget Battle?

It's been six weeks since Republicans passed their budget to finance a slimmed-down government: aside from defunding Planned Parenthood and National Public Radio, can you cite any significant federal programs that were axed?

From the moment they passed their first budget, Republican insiders decided to run the contest as a numbers game, and this may have been a classic miscalculation. Republicans promised $100 billion in cuts even before Rep. John Boehner was handed the speaker's gavel, but it has never been clear where this $100 billion number originated. Nevertheless, it became the standard for judging success.

Unless Republicans change their spending narrative away from numbers, they will lose the larger budget debate: only a focus on themes and values will win the hearts and minds of Americans. Unless the GOP can touch independent Americans who are fearful we are moving towards national bankruptcy, they will lose the most important political cause of our generation.

In retrospect, it does appears the $100 billion figure was the product of typical inside Washington calculations. Big round numbers sound good to the public. Former President Bill Clinton once vigorously campaigned for the funding of 100,000 new police officers. Why 100,000? Because it sounded like a serious anti-crime number. Yet it was a number picked out of thin air.

Even when Speaker Boehner reduced the amount to $61 billion, it was a mystery number. What did it mean? What major (liberal) spending programs were to be eliminated?

Without any substance or vision, this number was malleable. Democrats seized on it and began offering numbers lower than $61 billion. First $10 billion, then $30 billion, and finally $38 billion in cuts. The numbers moved here and there over the weeks, but the national debate never became more than a green-shaded accounting conversation.

The Democrats and the president didn't play the game the way Republicans expected. Instead of engaging the Republican budget, they went silent. They either completely ignored the House budget bill, acting as if it never happened, or they branded it a fantasy written to appease "extreme" Tea Party members. The media assented.

The president, in his usual style, remained completely detached and aloof. Conveniently ignoring the fact the Democrats never passed a budget when they had the majority, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) said the budget impasse was because of incalcitrant Republicans. This drove Republicans nuts, but they could never find an offensive game plan.

How did Republicans go from winning spectacular November victories to being on the ropes in the spring? There are many private explanations, including Speaker Boehner and Senate Minority Leader McConnell's penchants for behind-the-scenes negotiations.

In early March, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) handed a gift to Republicans. Last year Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) was able to enact a small rider mandating the GAO issue an annual estimate on governmental waste: the GAO identified $200 billion in waste from duplicative programs alone. The Wall Street Journal reported:

The U.S. government has 15 different agencies overseeing food-safety laws, more than 20 separate programs to help the homeless and 80 programs for economic development.

This was an opening for the Republicans -- they could address government gone wild. They could launch an offensive tied to their budget. But Republicans did not relentlessly hammer Democrats about the report, and President Obama even tried to attach himself to it, saying it also was his priority to end wasteful programs. The story died.