Saturday, December 8, 2012

For Democrats Is It Déjà Vu Time All Over Again?

Back in January of 2010, I wrote a piece on Obama's first year in office in which I recalled a famous scene from the movie Patton and how that scene crystallized the state both the Administration and Congressional Democrats were in.

It was December 1944 and General George S. Patton was sitting in a room full of generals. The Germans had just launched The Ardennes Offensive, better known as The Battle of the Bulge, and General Eisenhower wanted to know who among them could relieve the beleaguered forces at Bastogne. Patton spied the room for a brief moment and then blurted out, “I can attack with three divisions in 48 hours.”

The other generals were astounded at Patton’s bravado and openly questioned how he could make such a commitment of his soldiers who were already involved in a substantial campaign and would have to travel over 100 miles in the middle of a fierce snow storm. His reply was equally astounding, “They’ll do it because they’re good soldiers and because they realize as I do that we can still lose this war.”

In one sentence Patton had nailed it on the head. Of his many memorable quotes, none were so on point and foreboding as that one, for Patton was not one to count his chickens before they hatched. Despite the apparent superiority of the Allied forces and the shrinking morale of the German army, the war was not over. The enemy had not yet been defeated. A misstep here, a misstep there could spell disaster. We all know what happened: Patton’s divisions arrived in time to rescue Bastogne and within months, the Germans had surrendered. The war in Europe was over. The moral of that story was simple: never assume anything. The fight is never over so long as your adversary is still alive. To quote the great Yogi Berra, “It ain’t over till it’s over.”

Pity President Obama never met George Patton. Pity the Democratic Party never met George Patton. Since their meteoric ascension last November, which gave them virtually unfettered power, both Obama and the Democratic House and Senate have behaved like a football team entering the third quarter with a three touchdown lead playing prevent defense. Anyone who has ever seen a football game knows full well that teams that employ such a defense usually prevent themselves from winning. They are constantly on their heals while their opponents continue to march up and down the field. The rationale given for this defense is based on the assumption that three touchdown leads are rarely overcome. And certainly of course, the way the political landscape looked last year, that assumption seemed as secure as gold. The Republican Party was in retreat and disarray, politically isolated and socially in the hands of individuals who neither had the intellectual capacity to understand the position they were in or the vision to plot a course out of the wilderness. Pundits began to openly wonder if a comparison to the Whig Party was not appropriate. But, as any competent sportscaster will tell you, that’s why they play four quarters.

As we near the end of Barack Obama's first term in office, I feel another famous Yogi Berra saying coming on.  It's Déjà vu all over again.

Obviously a few things have changed since January, 2010.  The Republicans took the House in that year's midterm elections, but failed to retake the White House and the Senate and actually lost a few seats in the House in 2012.  Including this one, they have now lost the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections.  Clearly something is rotten in Denmark, or wherever the hell it is that their message is crafted.

But, even with victory in plain sight, I can't quite shake that sickening feeling that the other party in town - the not so grand one - hasn't learned its lessons from history and is about to once more find out that the enemy is alive and well and regrouping behind the scenes. As Jerry Girard would say if he were alive, the Democrats are about to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

I've been thinking a lot about the upper-tier Bush tax cuts and the leverage Obama and the Democrats have over the House Republicans on this issue.  In the Senate, the GOP has taken a far more pragmatic tact.  They've even passed a bill extending the middle class tax cuts.  All the House has to do is put the bill to a vote and the conventional wisdom is that it will get enough Republican votes to pass.

So why hasn't that happened yet?  Certainly John Boehner knows he has no choice.  There is no way in hell he is going to go down as the man who allowed taxes to go up for 98 percent of the country.  So why delay the inevitable?

Because every second Boehner delays allows him to gather the leverage he will need to use next year when the real fiscal cliff arrives.  The debt ceiling fiasco of 2011 is still fresh in the minds of most Americans and, sadly, the world.  It was by far the most embarrassing chapter in our nation's history.  A group of domestic terrorists disguised as congressmen held the nation's economy hostage until their demands were met.  The result was a credit downgrade and a badly tarnished reputation.

Well, if you thought Round One was a circus, you ain't seen nothing yet. Round Two is only a couple of months away.  Just wait until Boehner and House Republicans have their way with Obama and the Democrats next year.  The price for relenting on the top-tier Bush tax cuts will be steep indeed.  You can count on it.

They will demand huge cuts in spending, as well as entitlements - yes, even Social Security - that will ostensibly render them crippled.  They will do all of this because they feel they can.  Because, even on the heels of a devastating electoral loss, they are as defiant as ever.  Irrational people cannot be reasoned with.  All they have is their rage and their objectives.

I have been looking closely for signs that the Republican Party is on the verge of some metamorphosis, in which the seeds of a kinder, gentler, more centrist party might emerge.  With a few rare exceptions, the bulk of the GOP remains as fervent as ever in its stances. Far from an act of contrition, Republicans seem poised to double down on the same strategy that led to their demise in the first place. And while that is good news, long term, for Democratic prospects, in the short term, it promises to be one helluva ugly and nasty ride.

Throughout most of Obama's first term, the strategy for Republicans was twofold: Put up as many roadblocks to the President's attempts to fix the economy and then, when the recovery turned out to be not as robust as it should've been, blame him for it. That convoluted logic blew up in their faces last November as millions of voters reelected Obama, but, more importantly, rejected the GOP's narrative.

Rather than admit defeat, the GOP is setting its sights on 2014.  If they can crash the economy next year by forcing another default fiasco, they can possibly retake the Senate and build on their majority in the House.  That would ostensibly make Obama's last two years moot.

And that's why the President cannot let this go into 2013.  While allowing the upper-tier Bush tax cuts to sunset is certainly a priority, by no means should it be the only one.  As I wrote last month, Obama must get the grand bargain with Boehner he should've gotten back in 2011. If all he gets this year is the tax cuts, he will have won the battle and quite possibly lost the war.

There is no gentle way to put this.  A debt default and massive cuts to entitlements must be prevented at all costs.  The harm to the nation would be irrevocable.  While it may be tempting to force Boehner into a corner just to get higher tax rates on millionaires and billionaires, it may not be worth the collateral damage that will ensue down the road.

If Obama can get significant revenues from a mixture of tax increases - say 37 percent instead of 39.6 percent - the closing of loopholes and the elimination of certain deductions, while offering Boehner enough cuts in domestic spending (spread out over a ten-year period so as not to derail the recovery), along with some badly-needed reforms to Medicare and Medicaid, he should take it. Such an agreement should include a raising of the debt ceiling sufficiently to get through 2013.

Both men could emerge from such a bargain as winners to their constituents.  Obama could claim he got Republicans to give somewhat on taxes; Boehner could claim he got the cuts they needed to justify a deal.  Bottom line, revenue would be increased, spending decreased and entitlements would be strengthened.  If that deal were to happen, the markets would respond favorably and our credit rating, which took a bruising a year ago, might well be restored to its former self.

Of course that scenario is looking less and less likely.  Both sides have dug in their heels and appear unwilling to blink first.  And while it is refreshing to see this President show some spine after almost four years of playing Mr. Congeniality, I can't help but feel he is being set up, yet again, by the opposition. The Germans are, once more, mounting a winter offensive.

Call it an over-developed sense of morbidity. I've seen this movie way too many times before and the ending is usually not a happy one.

1 comment:

Peter Fegan said...

Politico is now reporting that John Boehner has not ruled out the possibility of a top rate of 37 percent. "There are a lot of things that are possible to put the revenue the President seeks on the table."

If that is true and Obama and Nancy Pelosi take him up on that offer, this could be the breakthrough both sides need to get a deal struck.