So a deal was finally struck at the eleventh hour and Armageddon was averted. Republicans held their breath and counted to a zillion, threatening to burn down their crib; Democrats kept trying to find some magic toy – a rattle, stuffed bear, anything – that would appease the spoiled brats. In the end, having been given virtually everything they demanded, the brats were still sulking and sucking their thumbs, and defiantly voting no. Talk about sore winners!
This time there will be no negotiation, no back and forth, no surrender, as Bruce Springsteen once sang. The crumbs they grudgingly left on the table in this battle will be gathered together to form the biggest fruitcake imaginable and then thrown into the face of every Democrat and moderate Republican left standing. If you thought this fiasco was ugly and painful to watch, try imagining a scenario where the consequences aren’t nearly as severe. While a government shutdown might be inconvenient for some, it pales in comparison to what just nearly happened. This time, those “moderate / sensible” Republicans might just combine forces with the E-Trade babies and decide to go long just for spite.
And who’s going to stop them? Senate Democrats? President Obama? Please, don’t make me laugh. Facing the prospect of a historic and ultimately tragic outcome, Senate Democrats and Obama managed to salvage just one thing of substance: they kept the GOP from turning this debt-ceiling issue into another circus in the middle of an election year. Bravo, people! As George Bush would’ve said, “Mission accomplished!” On virtually everything else however – revenues, tax loopholes, entitlement reform – they caved. Yes I know that the Bush tax cuts are still dangling out there waiting to be put out of their misery at the end of 2012. Anybody want to place bets that the Republicans will demand they be made permanent as one of the conditions of passing the 2012 budget? Again, that was a rhetorical question. You’ll have to keep up with me, boys and girls, I move fast.
What all of this proves, beyond any reasonable doubt, is that there are consequences for failing to control a narrative. Democrats have only themselves to blame for the predicament they are in. Lest we forget, they not only controlled both Houses of Congress, as well as the White House, but, for the better part of two years, they had sixty seats in the Senate. In essence, they controlled their own fate. All Republicans could do was sit there and twiddle their thumbs, something they are quite adept at, that is when they aren’t shouting “fire” in a crowded movie theater.
So how then did the wheels come off? If you’ve ever read Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, you probably already know the answer to that question. The famous scene where Brutus cedes the stage, and with it the mob, to Mark Antony should be a must read for every political science major. One would’ve thought someone as astute in the arts as Obama would’ve memorized Antony’s “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears” line. Certainly those of us who voted for him assumed he was up to the task before him. But, after running what many considered the perfect campaign against Hillary Clinton, for some strange reason that only he himself seems to know, he has managed to violate virtually every conceivable rule of politics. Like Brutus, he naively trusted an enemy he thought would be reasonable, and has paid the ultimate price. Worse, like the aforementioned character in the play, he could not even bring himself to admit that he had enemies.
This isn’t about intelligence, for Brutus was an intelligent and thoughtful man. In fact, this may be an instance of too much intelligence for one’s own good getting in the way of political savviness. For much of Barack Obama’s career, he has seen the world through the eyes of a litigator. As any trial attorney will tell you, your training requires you to see both sides of an argument, even if the other side is inimical to your position. In every bill that he championed, and later passed, Obama strove for a middle of the road approach in order to win support from his opponents, support that never arrived. The stimulus was less than progressives wanted; the healthcare reform law lacked a public option; and the Dodd-Frank Act didn’t deal effectively with “Too Big To Fail.”
Obama’s pragmatism may have gotten these bills passed, but his critics on the Left argued – and effectively, I might add – that he gave away far too much of the store way too early in the process. If Clinton’s arrogance in the ‘90s was singularly responsible for the failure of healthcare reform to pass, then it can be safely assumed that Obama’s 180 was mainly responsible for the passage of a flawed and vulnerable law. Even now, the Administration is gearing up for the legal fight of its life that will inevitably wind up in the Supreme Court. Despite the bravado of the law’s proponents, the individual mandate has about a 50 / 50 chance of surviving the challenge.
And what else can be said of the stimulus that hasn’t already been said. Too small to be truly stimulative, yet still big enough to draw the ire of its opponents, Obama has now been reduced to having to defend an action which prevented the nation from falling off the proverbial cliff, but was clearly insufficient to jump-start the economy. In other words, the old, “As bad as things are now, it would’ve far worse had…” argument. It didn’t work in the 2010 midterms; it is unlikely to be successful next year.
And now the Administration, along with its Party, is on the defensive, as the Tea Party has not only managed to change the level of discourse in the country, but dominate the political landscape, as well. Whatever else you may want to call them – and I have exhausted every metaphor imaginable – they now control the narrative in Washington. It doesn’t matter that not one policy they have advocated has a proven track record of success; it also doesn’t matter that their stunts over the last few weeks have badly wounded the Republican brand. What matters most is that they have gotten the majority of elected officials in Congress in both parties to speak their language, and on their terms. They put their foot down and won. Imagine that. And, as far as damaging the Republican brand is concerned, any pundit will tell you that polls are as fickle as the weather in Florida. Let’s not forget that Obama’s approval rating after the killing of bin Laden was above 50%. It’s dropped more than ten points in four months.
Yes, they damn near destroyed the nation’s economy, and yes, many of them still don’t believe there was any real urgency regarding the debt-ceiling issue. But, for a bunch of juvenile delinquents posing as lawmakers, the Tea Party sure as hell schooled their masters, didn’t they? The four-year olds are having one hell of a good time in Mrs. McGillicutty’s class, aren’t they?
The lesson in all of this is as plain as the nose on your face. Those who control their own narrative, get to pull the strings; those who don’t, court political oblivion. By not carefully outlining what he was doing each and every step of the way, the President ostensibly allowed his opponents do define the message, a no-no in politics. Brutus wasn't so much an honorable man as he was a dangerously naive one. And while it’s a little late in the game for a do over, Obama is going to have to reassert himself if he has any chance of getting reelected. As things stand now he is no more than even money against Mitt Romney in next year’s election; the Senate is vulnerable; and even if Democrats manage to pick up some seats in the House, it won’t be nearly enough to prevent the sort of hostage taking we saw during this debacle.
Things will only continue to get worse; that much is certain. What isn’t certain is whether this President has the stomach to do something he historically has had an aversion to: namely confront his opponents. For the time being the nation will get a breather as it prepares for and marks the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, but within days after that event, Republicans will be fast at work putting forth their demands.
I have lauded this President for being the adult in the room over the last few months, but there comes a time when the adult has to bring a stick into the classroom and administer his own form of corporal punishment to the wayward children. There is far more at stake here than Obama’s reputation. Imagine a scenario with both Houses of Congress firmly in the hands of the GOP and Michele Bachmann in the White House. Imagine Republicans running roughshod over the country, undoing every rule and regulation and enacting strict voter registration laws that could ostensibly block any real challenge to their reign for decades to come.
Can you imagine George Bush standing for this? Another rhetorical question that needs no answer. Well unless Barack Obama chooses to take a page out of his predecessor’s playbook and make a stand, and make it soon, the above scenario is not only possible, it’s quite probable. Painting the other side as irrational and unreasonable will only get you so far.
Ain't history funny? That was a rhetorical, oh, you get the point!