The ransom deal

    When Barack Obama bowed to Republican extortion back in December – he agreed to extend the Bush tax cuts for the rich; in return, the Republicans released their hostages and said that jobless Americans could continue to collect jobless benefits – one wise observer excoriated him for “caving egregiously to the enemies who have sworn to destroy him,” and foresaw similar behavior in the future. “Lesson for Obama: When you cave to blackmailers, blackmailers always come back for more…which only guarantees that the Republicans will keep trying to roll him….What assurances do we have that Obama will fight any harder over the next two years – when the Republicans, having already deemed him weak, will be incrementally cranking up the heat?”That was me. Of course, I deserve no prize for being so prescient; it was obvious last winter that the pattern would be replicated down the road, to the president’s political detriment and to the nation’s manifest embarrassment. And sure enough, Obama has been rolled again. This morning, we have a tentative fiscal deal that tragically betrays core Democratic principles; in return, the Republicans will supposedly release their hostage (Uncle Sam himself) and allow him to actually pay his bills and keep his credit rating. As Drew Westen, a Democratic message strategist, rightfully remarked late last night, “Once again, the president has been taken to the cleaners – presuming he cares about anything that Democrats traditionally care about.”Never before had a cadre of partisan zealots sought to drive the nation into default and crash the economy. Raising the debt ceiling had always been a bipartisan imperative; it had never been used as a bargaining chip in a game of chicken. But in response, Obama essentially said: “Let us reason together. If you will vote to raise the debt ceiling, I will agree to cut lots of government spending. But I am drawing a line in the sand. To close the budget deficit, we also need to raise a lot of new revenue. The rich should pay more. The tax loopholes that benefit the rich and the corporations need to be closed. We can’t just have spending cuts, because that will put the burden on the poor, the vulnerable, the middle class, and the seniors. As a Democrat, I can’t do that.”Well, he did that.The ransom he has agreed to pay is a testament to his political ineffectiveness. His call for “a balanced approach,” a mix of spending cuts and revenue hikes? Gone. His crusade to extract “shared sacrifice” from the rich and the special interests? Gone. His insistence, a few months ago, that “winning the future” requires federal spending “to spur job creation?” Long gone.Instead, the ransom features deep cuts in domestic programs and zero new revenues. The ransom protects the Republicans’ most affluent friends, and endangers the Democrats’ core supporters. The ransom will take a lot of money out of the fragile economy, at a time when the economy badly needs more – a potentially eerie replay of what happened in 1937-8, when FDR cut spending and tried to balance the budget, thereby predictably stalling the economic recovery from the Great Depression.As Bill Maher quipped on HBO the other night, “One party has no brains, the other party has no balls.” Indeed, it’s fair to wonder at this juncture what it is that Obama stands for – aside from reasonableness, a wimp trait that the Republican hostage-takers continue to exploit for their own destructive purposes. A real leader doesn’t repeatedly cave to extortion; a real leader challenges the extortionists by framing the terms of debate and adhering to those terms, buttressed by the fact that in poll after poll he had the majority of Americans on his side, favoring the principle of shared sacrifice. A real leader would’ve at least threatened to invoke the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (“the validity of the public debt…shall not be questioned”) as justification for unilaterally raising the debt ceiling in the national interest. Taking such action, a real leader would’ve dared the zealots to impeach him. (Impeach a president who took action to protect the full faith and credit of the United States, as well as the financial investments of the American people? No way the Republicans would have looked good on that one.) Or, going back to that December debacle, a real leader would’ve insisted, as a condition for extending the Bush tax cuts for the rich, that the Republicans agree to raise the debt ceiling – thereby preempting the next round of hostage-taking.Of course, none of that happened. Instead, the ransom deal will hinge on an endorsement vote in the Republican House. We’ll soon see whether the extortionists are cognitively capable of declaring victory. Some savvy observers are taking a more benign view of Obama’s behavior, arguing that he is wisely positioning himself for the ’12 re-election race. Yeah, maybe. But I can’t help but recall something he said last December, while he was trumpeting that earlier ransom deal. He conceded that he had essentially surrendered to the Republicans (“I have not been able to budge them”), but he vowed that, in the future, there would be no more Mr. Nice Guy. Here’s what he promised:

    “I’ve got a whole bunch of lines in the sand.”Oh really? Pray tell, what might those be?——-Coincidentally (or fortuitously), in my Sunday newspaper column I wrote about the growing liberal disaffection with Obama, pre-deal.——-I did a Live Chat today, fielding many spirited questions.

    I’m also slated to talk on NewsWorks Tonight, the WHYY six p.m. radio show.

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