The Audacity of “Nope” — 1 August 2011

One of the key skills when playing a game of brinksmanship is to know where the brink lies.   As the Great Debt Ceiling Debate made its fitful way toward its inevitable conclusion this week, we heard a lot of complaining from Obama and the rest of the Democrats about the intransigence, the unwillingness to compromise of the Tea Party caucus.  Words like “terrorist,” “hostage takers,” “crazies” and the like were tossed about.

It kind of reminds me of the way people used to criticize Ronald Reagan and his military build-up.  He’s “reckless,” “trigger-happy,” a “war-monger,” cried his opponents.   They were sure that the very fact of his willingness to contemplate force would itself lead to war.  In fact, the notion among our adversaries that he might do something crazy gave a powerful boost to his negotiating position.

These epithets sound to me like losers’ complaints.  I don’t recall, for instance, a whole lot of tears shed on the left for the lack of compromise back when Obamacare or the $850 billion “stimulus” were passed without any Republican support.  Now, however, that the discipline of the GOP was strong enough that a single House could bend the results to its favor, you hear all this devotion to bipartisanship.  “Play fair!” they cried.

It was indeed a brilliant achievement.  Think, after all, of how this Congress has completely changed the discussion in Washington.  For decades, the default course of action has been to approve more and more spending – indeed, the basic budgeting technique calls for a baseline of spending that increases every year, and the negotiations are over whether the growth is faster or slower than the baseline.  Here, finally, we are talking about actually spending less money than before.

Despite Obama’s paying lip service to the idea of debt reduction – the Simpson-Bowles Commission, whose handiwork was promptly tossed in the bin – he remained at heart a tax-and-spend liberal.  Witness his “budget” from last February, which was so out of touch with reality that the Senate voted it down 97 – 0.  It was the fiscal conservatives of the Republican Party who took spending – and tax increases as well – off the table, from the relatively weak position of holding power in only the House of Representatives.

Mind you, I’m not so blinkered as to think this was all smoothly masterminded by John Boehner and the rest of the GOP leadership.  They had to pull a fragile consensus together amid a lot of complaining.  There were fractious representatives who honestly were prepared to deny the government any more borrowing power, which would have led to an abrupt reduction of 40% of government expenditures and total fiscal chaos.  But there have always been players on the fringe of both parties, which is what makes politics in this country so colorful.  If the entire Republican caucus were prepared to throw the country under the bus for a principle, there would have been something to screech about, but that clearly was not the case.

As a result, I think Boehner has emerged from this struggle dramatically enhanced, as has Eric Cantor, Boehner’s “bad cop” in the House.  On the other hand, I don’t see any way to interpret President Obama’s stature after this deal as anything but diminished.

He started out asking for a “clean” debt ceiling increase, with no strings attached.  With that an obvious non-starter, he then tried to manage the negotiation in ways that were completely out of synch with the dynamic that was taking place on the Hill.  Joe Biden came somewhat close to getting a deal, but then it faltered and Obama stepped in to no satisfactory effect.  In his ubiquitous press conferences, he kept harping on what he called a “balanced approach” which included dinging “millionaires and billionaires.”  That got nowhere.

He pushed for a big deal, one that would bring together entitlement reforms, tax reform, debt reductions on the order of $4 trillion, and, most of all, an extension of the debt ceiling beyond the next election.  But he offered no suggestion of his own – there was no “Obama plan” on paper that anyone would debate, modify, negotiate.  At the end of the day, he backed away from all of that.  The final bill does include the promise of debt ceiling relief beyond the next election, but it is contingent, and no sure thing.

Negotiating with Obama was like “dealing with Jello,” as Speaker Boehner put it, and after two weeks of that he finally gathered up his playing pieces and went back to the Hill, from whence the deal finally emerged.

So step by step Obama yielded to the stubbornness emanating from the House.  Despite his attempts to appear to be the “adult in the room,” as the friendly press liked to express it, it was Boehner who ended up looking like the accomplished negotiator; the president looked like a spectator.

As I look at this, I wonder how Obama can hope to get re-elected.  His signature legislative accomplishment, Obamacare, is still opposed by a majority of Americans, and it is becoming increasingly clear that it is resulting in higher costs, despite their many predictions.  Beyond that, and more importantly, he has to defend his stewardship of an economy that is not only not rebounding but shows an alarming risk of slipping back into recession.  Unemployment remains over 9 percent; industrial production, as announced today, is flagging; national GDP growth is anemic and far below levels needed to generate employment.  The country’s finances are in a mess: 40 cents of every dollar Uncle Sam spends is borrowed; each year we run a deficit equal to roughly $4,000 for every man, woman and child in the country; and the debt run up on the national credit card by this administration is greater than the sum of all debts accumulated by all previous presidents.  All this will make Obama an easy target, regardless of who his opponent turns out to be.

And who will support him?  The left is disenchanted, never more so than in his capitulation on the debt ceiling issue.  The youth vote are no longer enamored – it turns out that the seas did not stop rising and the earth did not begin to heal with Obama, and when a great fantasy like that falls away, the kids go back to their dorms in disappointment.   Similarly with independents, who really put Obama over the top: the iconic post-modern political phenomenon they thought they had found is now shown
with the benefit of familiarity to be as partisan as any, and not terribly competent.

Most importantly, Obama no longer inspires.  He seems bitter, petty, frustrated.  He does not call Americans to dare great things.  When he has raised those visions in the past it invariably meant more spending.  That avenue is virtually closed off, and he seems to have no way of connecting with the energy, the drive, the spirit of the individual that has made this country great.

So more happened this weekend than simply resolving the latest in a long string of cat-fights about money.  A tectonic shift seems to have taken place, away from increasingly reckless wasting of the taxpayers’ precious resources and toward responsible stewardship, perhaps even humility.  President Obama, archetype of the generous-government school, seems to be behind the parade he should be leading.

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