There’s lots of talk today about the negotiations about the so-called fiscal cliff.
I’m not sure what Boehner and the other Republicans in Congress really think and whether they’re less naive than they were before about this; they certainly don’t seem strategically sophisticated or aware, now have they shown much of either trait in the past. But I don’t know, because I’m not at all sure there’s a way out of this that works for the Republicans, and perhaps their confusion and weakness is at least in part a reflection of that fact.
I’ve avoided writing about the looming fiscal cliff till now. But I’ve certainly been ruminating about it, with trepidation. The day after the election it suddenly struck me that, although I’d been thinking “well, at least we retained the House,” what power did that really give us? Mostly, perhaps, the power to be blamed, a power that Obama has exercised with more skill by far than any previous president, and more success as well.
One of the very first things I noticed about Obama was his tendency to blame others, and especially Republicans, for almost everything, and to avoid being called weak or buck-passing when doing so. And by “first things I noticed” I mean in June of 2008, before he became president or had even officially been nominated. The occasion was his first major broken promise, the one about campaign financing.
It’s instructive to look at it because of how early this incident was, and how clearly it established what has become a familiar pattern: Obama makes a promise, including a promise to negotiate with Republicans; then breaks it and blames the Republicans for what he’s doing, and the public accepts his version of things:
Yesterday Obama channeled Emily Litella and said “never mind,” taking back his earlier promise to accept public financing for his campaign if his opponent would as well. In November of 2007 he not only made this pledge, but added “I will aggressively pursue an agreement with the Republican nominee to preserve a publicly financed general election.” He has not (see description of those negotiations here), and today he stopped even pretending that he would.
Well, so what? Promises, shmomises…
It’s not just that he reneged, either–it’s how he reneged. Who’s to blame, according to Obama? Why, John McCain and the nasty Republicans, that’s who. James Joyner writes that this charge of Obama’s does take “a bit of gall.” I’d say it takes substantially more than a bit, as well as a heavy dose of the whining, blaming, audacity in which the holier-than-thou Obama tends to specialize:
The public financing of presidential elections as it exists today is broken, and we face opponents who’ve become masters at gaming this broken system,” Mr. Obama said. “John McCain’s campaign and the Republican National Committee are fueled by contributions from Washington lobbyists and special interest PACs. And we’ve already seen that he’s not going to stop the smears and attacks from his allies running so-called 527 groups, who will spend millions and millions of dollars in unlimited donations.”
It’s worth reading the rest of the post to see how the seeds of so many behaviors of Obama’s were displayed during that one incident. The thing that most struck me back then was how brazen his reversal and blaming was, and that even though he did get a little criticism for it from some on the left, most of his supporters defended him and even those who’d offered some criticism didn’t hold it against him. I saw the entire incident as a testing of the waters by Obama to see how far this tactic would take him and how much he could get away with. The answers were: very far, and a great deal.
Now Obama is flush with power, the Republicans reeling in defeat. If they had lost the House, they’d be powerless, but at least they could not be blamed for their impotence. Now they have the illusion of power in that they have a majority there, but what can they do with it on this issue? It’s not as though Obama really wants to negotiate in good faith; his idea of negotiation is to do it his way. So the Republicans can give in to his demands, or stonewall and make their constituents happy. But if they choose the latter, they will not get any important concessions from Obama, and they will be blamed for—well, for everything bad that happens thereafter. They will have given Obama the rope with which to hang the Republican Party.
Some of you may say “so be it; they’re useless anyway.” And I share some of that feeling. It’s very frustrating to look back at the early years of the Bush administration, when Republicans could have cut back on spending instead of expanding it, and reformed health insurance and by so doing finessed Obamacare, and to know the opportunities were passed up and messed up.
But be very, very careful what you wish for. The demise of the Republican Party is not likely to mean that a wonderful new conservative party—designed to your exact specifications, and composed of strategically adept winners—will rise, cleansed, from its ashes.