This congressional Republican budget is something different altogether. It is a Trojan Horse. Disguised as deficit reduction plans, it is really an attempt to impose a radical vision on our country. It is thinly veiled social Darwinism. It is antithetical to our entire history as a land of opportunity and upward mobility for everybody who’s willing to work for it; a place where prosperity doesn’t trickle down from the top, but grows outward from the heart of the middle class. And by gutting the very things we need to grow an economy that’s built to last — education and training, research and development, our infrastructure — it is a prescription for decline.
The above is one widely discussed passage from the President’s April 3 “marvelous budget” speech to newspaper editors, one of the latest speeches to be identified by pundits as the “real” beginning of the 2012 campaign. Even more than last December’s address in Osawatomie or the 2012 State of the Union, it confirmed that the President believes he is in possession of a winning argument that also happens to be a partisan-ideological one. Rather than criticize “Congress” or “Washington,” the President is now comfortably naming names, and demanding that others do so as well. In answer to the first question from the editors, he even added a liberal-delighting critique of both-sides-at-fault false equivalence.
The Republican strategy has real strengths. The party’s sheer bloody-minded refusal to compromise, and its devotion to ever more radical policy agendas, has helped it to shift the terms of the debate steadily rightward… The weakness of this strategy is that it opens you up to political attack by allowing your opponent to claim the center. That is the ground Obama has gleefully seized.
According to David Corn in Showdown: The Inside Story of How Obama Fought Back Against Boehner, Cantor, and the Tea Party, what Chait describes as a gleeful seizure of evacuated ground is the product of a consciously designed and carefully executed political plan itself derivable from a larger Theory of Obama’s Presidency.
The Theory’s outlines ought to be familiar to any student of recent American history. Corn explains it succinctly from the perspective of the Theorist-in-Chief:
As far as he saw it, his own triumph [in 2008] did not signify a basic shift in the nation’s political culture. Changing the fundamental mind-set of the country regarding government, taxes, foreign policy, education, the environment—this was a thirty-year mission. Roosevelt’s New Deal sensibility had defined politics for four decades, until Ronald Reagan reshaped the political culture in the 1980s and bolstered an antigovernment backlash. Obama was hoping to lead a new transition. He had concluded this could only be done gradually, in a manner that drew popular support from an American public that was often so at odds with itself politically, ideologically, and culturally.
Corn does not pretend that the Obami of 2008-9 foresaw the Tea-infused “shellacking” suffered by the Democrats in the 2010 Mid-Terms, but the Theory takes the likelihood of such a backlash, if not its precise forms, into account: The predictable resistance to an epochal shift in American politics would itself have to be successfully resisted, and resisted in a way that would establish the predicate for an election argument of 2012, as well as for, excuse the expression, a more fundamental transformation, a liberal-statist restoration, in the years beyond.
According to Showdown, it was within this overarching scheme that, in late 2010, chief White House strategist David Plouffe carefully plotted a two-part two-year campaign. Its concept may or may not have been worthy of Frederick the Great or Sun Tzu, but it may have been worthy at least of Colin Powell, as in “First we are are going to cut it off, and then we are going to kill it.” If the O command “stuck to the plan,” 2011 (Phase 1) could unfold as the isolation and bombardment of the Tea Party salient, 2012 (Phase 2) as its attempted destruction amidst a major counteroffensive.
Corn’s book covers Phase 1 in detail, a mixture of reporting and 2nd draft of history collation. The overall narrative suggests a drawn-out re-play of the 2008 TARP vote, in which crypto-teapartisans took Republicans and all of the rest of us through a similarly apocalyptic drama that mainly benefited their political opponents, not least the Democrats’ presidential nominee. Corn quotes a “Senior Administration Official” describing the 2011 sequel in the following terms:
We were dealing with House Republicans who were both irresponsible and incompetent. It was like you handed a nuclear bomb to inept and useless people. They couldn’t count votes. They didn’t know what would pass. And anything we said could blow everything up.
In this light the outcome may seem to have been pre-ordained, with the only real question being how much damage the far right, now under the Tea Party banner, would do to self and others before being squashed by sheer political-economic necessity. The fact remains that by the end of the year the Republicans were conceding on issues like payroll tax cuts and unemployment insurance extension rather than sustain further damage. As for the House radicals, one vignette from Showdown seems especially telling:
…Boehner was finally saying no to the Tea Party. During the conference call, the speaker kept the mute function on. His troops could not talk back to him.
At a wave-the-white-flag press conference later in the day, Boehner remarked, “Sometimes it is politically difficult to do the right thing.”
In other words, new expeditions to the fiscal-budgetary brink seem to be off the agenda at least until the lame duck session of 2012 and the seating of the 113th Congress.
There is, of course, another political faction – more like a loose bundle of splinters, if not that coherent – that agrees with the Tea Party on one thing: that these are desperate times calling for desperate measures, not any art of the merely consensually possible. For ardent “progressives” – possibly as much a misnomer for the further-left as “conservative” is for today’s further-right – any supposed turn to the strategic offensive, if indeed anything worthy of the name has taken place, has come too late, and the Obama-Plouffe battle plan, in view of the casualties sustained and territory ceded, has been one part cowardice and betrayal, one part self-fulfilling prophecy.
It is therefore unsurprising that Hullaballoo’s David Atkins, a reliably further-left voice at a reliably further-left blog, responded to Obama’s performance before the news editors with damningly faint praise:
If these words are put into action during a second term, it may well be that a disillusioned and chastened President Obama may be the President in his second term that many of us hoped he would be in his first. It’s not terribly likely, admittedly, but one can certainly hope. The positive signs are there.
The notion that a “disillusioned and chastened” President Obama – or a disillusioned and chastened anyone – will set out boldly is psychologically unpersuasive, to say the least, though it may be even harder to imagine a president who has just won re-election also understanding himself as a “chastened” leader. Nor does the guy singing “Let’s Stay Together” or giving the Vulcan “Live Long and Prosper Sign” with Lt. Uhura look disillusioned and chastened to me.
More to the main point, Corn’s Obama of late 2010 through 2011 does not appear to suffer illusions about what he was confronting: Fierce and widespread skepticism regarding new government initiatives of almost any type, extending far beyond the talkradio, Fox-junkie, blog-trolling hardcore. A deep underlying liberal-statist consensus may be stronger than most people recognize (at least until the moment of emergency), but, as many have noted, it operates conservatively, in the literal sense of the word, defending past social democratic achievements, not rushing to embrace new ones. The ones in thrall to illusions would be any further-left progressives who underestimated the breadth and sheer inertial weight of what Obama, and they, are up against.
This last set of observations could be the basis for a discussion of both the Theory and its alternatives in larger context, but for now we can take the threatened overturning by a Supreme Court majority of “Obamacare” (the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act) as a concrete example of systemic inertia. For left-progressives, durably providing the difference in opinion polling between plurality opposition and minority support for the health care law, its chief failing was that it did not go far enough. They now point out that no one, or hardly anyone, considers single payer health care unconstitutional. Unfortunately, no one considers it passable either, and single payer’s un-passability and Obamacare’s potential vulnerability are of a piece: The Citizens United and Bush v Gore conservative activist court, cribbing talking points from far right blogs, is as much an element within the 30-year Reagan Era overhang as the legislative impracticality of single payer, and as the range of other real social and political, eventually cultural-historical, impediments to the rest of a further-left agenda.
For present purposes, it may well be that nothing as ideologically coherent as an authentically left program or for that matter as Tea Party “federalism” (or Romney-Ryan free market devolution) can be implemented in the United States of America. The Theory’s very adequacy to the political moment may therefore be identical with its inadequacy to greater challenges that the American political system, maybe the American nation-state itself as presently constituted, cannot even recognize, much less successfully confront. From this point of view, the apocalypse would be not what was avoided via the Showdown, but what the showdown showed us through a crack in the blinds, something that cannot forever be voted in or out or up or down, hidden under a “tarp,” or put off until another year or two for further putting off for another year or two…
For that you will need a different theory.