What a nice holiday gift for Democrats! The Republicans are waving the white flag of surrender in their dispute over the two month extension of unemployment benefit and payroll tax reductions. The substantive importance of this is fairly modest. This is only a two month extension to a few fairly small changes in middle class taxes and benefits; the dispute over how (or whether) to pay for them will continue into January and February, and all of this is a small sideshow to the much larger dispute over the nations’ short term job creation problem, and long-term debt problem – the issue the Simpson-Bowles Commission took on and the “Congressional Super-committee” failed to resolve – which still looms over us.
Still the political importance of the Republican faux-pas is tremendous, because it brings into crystal clear focus, an accurate picture of the positions of the two parties. The House Republicans over-reached and rejected a short term deal between President Obama and the Republican and Democratic leaders in the Senate that passed the Senate with 89 votes including 39 Republicans, because being non-compromisers has become the definition of who they are.
Ill timed during the season of good cheer, the House Republicans snatched discord from the jaws of harmony in the Senate, rejecting a compromise and issuing new ultimatums and threats that put them so far from the center of American opinion that they were getting public criticism from all quarters, including John McCain, the Wall Street Journal, and Carl Rove. What most Americans have at the top of their wish list of presents they have wanted this year, is for the two sides to come together, put their differences aside, and agree on compromise solutions to our nation’s many problems. The House Republicans committed the political sin of revealing that they have been pursuing just the opposite of this.
The whole mess serves to make something clear to casual observers of the goings on in Washington (that is, most voters) what close observers have known all year – Republicans have been blocking all attempts at compromise. If it was not clear that Republicans were causing the rise in conflict in Washington after two budget standoffs and a showdown over raising the debt ceiling, it should be painfully obvious now. Like the Year-in-Review wrap-ups, Republicans have taken a year’s worth of political brinksmanship and repeated the whole pattern in the span of just a few days.
New Republican Talking Point: Both Sides Are Equally to Blame
It is hard to miss it when the Republicans launch a new set of talking points into the echo chamber. If you set your video recorder to conservative political talk television you can capture the same carefully chosen words repeated dozens of times over a 24 hour period. Comedy Central is given too much credit for stringing them together in montages; the Republicans make it very easy.
In the weeks preceding the latest debacle, Republicans had been rolling out new talking points that took the form of a logical syllogism asserting:
A Republicans have their strongly held views (small government and low taxes),
B Democrats have their strongly held views (higher taxes and larger government),
C Therefore we have principled gridlock until voters decide which vision they prefer in the 2012 election.
Democrats would dispute this Republican characterization of the positions of the two sides in the debate, claiming they are fighting for the interests of most Americans who are middle class, working class, or poor, while Republicans are fighting to protect large corporations and the very rich from any new taxes or regulations that would inconvenience their privileged lives. But more importantly than the verbal sparring between the parties, this analysis, even when stated in less partisan terms by the media, leaves out two essential elements of the syllogism that reveal a greater truth about American Politics in the Obama Era:
A Republicans have their strongly held views,
B Democrats have their strongly held views,
C Democrats have offered to split the difference, or go further toward their adversary’s position in order to get compromise and progress, while
D Republicans have rejected all compromise
E Therefore we have not principled gridlock but instead we have partisan road block caused by the intransigence of not both political parties, but rather just one, the Republicans.
Now, even though many press reports continue to present the false symmetry, voters were already giving Democrats, particularly President Obama, a real advantage when it comes to the question of who is seeking, and who is blocking compromise. This advantage is likely to grow more pronounced in polls taken after the latest example of Republican intransigence.
Whether Obama Compromises Too Much or
Not Well Enough, He Has Earned the High Ground
Obama has earned this distinction, even if many of his allies believe he paid far too high a price for it. Liberal Democrats have been frustrated with Barack Obama almost since the start of his presidency, but especially since the 2010 election, for what they see as a pattern of appeasement with Republicans. Throughout a year filled with standoffs, showdowns, and threatened government shut downs, the President seems always to be offering more concessions while the Republicans seem to keep adding demands. It is a pattern they saw again in the past couple of weeks as Senate Republicans demanded an accelerated decision on the Keystone XL pipeline in order to gain their agreement to lower taxes on the middle class, and the White House has made this concession to get the deal that overwhelmingly passed the Senate, before being rejected by Republicans in the House.
While liberals say the president compromises too much, more moderate voices within the Democratic coalition have been frustrated with Obama for negotiating badly and giving compromise a bad name. Centered Politics has joined in this chorus of frustration with the White House pointing out (here and here) that Obama has failed to exhibit a mastery of negotiation leverage.
Obama has issued demands he later had to drop when he had no leverage to compel the other side to make a deal, as in the debt ceiling battle in August. More importantly he had failed to press his advantage and gain concessions from the Republicans when he had leverage to do so as in April and again in October when a potential shut-down of government was part of the discussion. Republicans are good at bluffing but they would agree to almost anything if pressed to avoid a government shutdown because they know it would end in embarrassing defeat for Republicans as Newt Gingrich learned in 1995-1996.
Liberals and moderates can agree that Obama has paid a very high price, but he has purchased a strong argument against Republicans in the 2012 election. If you want to see the parties work through their differences, and come together in a spirit of compromise (and a strong majority of Americans do want this) then vote for President Obama and other Democrats because Republicans have rejected every Democratic offer of compromise.
Moderates Who Think “All Politicians Are The Same” Are Giving Their Power Away
The broken economy is very likely to be the top issue and there will be a vigorous debate on the topic, but Obama also promised to fix the broken political system in Washington, and the two challenges are closely related. As the debt ceiling stand-off made clear, it is twice as hard to fix the economy when the political system is also broken.
Like every presidential election, the 2012 contest will be decided by Independent voters and moderate partisans who are as angry as ever with the breakdown in Congress. Republicans would like this anger diffused which is why they are promoting the false equivalence, “a pox on both your houses” storyline.
The case Democrats want to make blaming the stalemate on Republicans was already made easier by leading Republicans like Rush Limbaugh and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell when they made clear statements that they placed a higher priority on making Obama look like a failure than seeing America succeed. The Republican presidential contenders were brought into the mix when 8 out of 8 GOP hopefuls raised their hands during an August debate in Iowa to reject a hypothetical compromise deficit reduction package offering $10 in spending reductions for every $1 in new taxes. But this newest episode, where Republicans and Democrats negotiated the compromise deal only to see other Republicans reject it again should remove any doubt for moderates who would like to see America’s political leaders getting along and getting their work done.
If you are a moderate who wants to see Republicans and Democrats working together, vote out the Republicans this time around. The Democrats have been trying to work across party lines. The Republicans have been blocking progress.