Now that President Obama has proposed tax reform that would lower corporate tax rates and provide for new stimulus spending — which Republicans have flatly rejected — it has renewed the seemingly endless, intractable debate over the causes of gridlock and failure to compromise in Washington. There is no prominent commentator who is more determined to blame both sides for what is happening than Ron Fournier, so his latest explanation for what ails us is worth a response.
In a column entitled, “What If Obama Can’t Lead?” Fournier admits the GOP is “an obstructionist, rudderless party often held hostage by extremists.” He then counsels Obama: “get over it.” The crux of Fournier’s argument is that, whoever is the more uncompromising party, history is not fair: It judges presidents based on what they accomplish. “Great presidents overcome great hurdles,” Fournier writes, adding: “To say the situation is intractable seems akin to waving a white flag over a polarized capital.” Fournier’s advice to the president:
The outsize attention given to the president gives him unparalleled advantages. Obama can make better use of it. He could talk to the media and the public more often with a more compelling and sustained message. He could build enduring relationships in Washington rather than being so blatantly transactional with his time. He could work harder, and with more empathy, on Capitol Hill to find “win-win” opportunities with Republicans. He could make better use of his Cabinet to message and enact policies. In private, he could talk less and listen more. In public, he could set reasonable expectations and meet them. He could pick his fights better. In hindsight, Obama should have gotten much more out of Congress when Democrats controlled both chambers.
Advice such as this seems deliberately designed to be impossible to meet. Whatever Obama does, the pundit can simply respond with, “not enough; do more of it, or do it more effectively.” After all, Obama is already doing some of the things Fournier wants him to do: He is holding discussions with GOP lawmakers in hopes of enticing them to break away from the leadership/Tea Party alliance’s hostility to compromise on the budget, infrastructure spending, and other matters. Is Obama’s message is “compelling” or “sustained” enough? Well, again and again, the President has publicly offered Republicans various concessions — such as entitlement cuts, other spending cuts, and tax reform that would cut corporate rates — in the quest for a deal. Polls show the public blames the GOP more than Obama for current gridlock, and supports Obama’s call for a mix of new taxes and spending cuts. But that hasn’t moved the GOP, for the very reason Fournier himself identifies: it is hostage to extremists. If the message has persuaded the public — but has failed to move Republicans, because for structural reasons, they are no longer responsive to national opinion — doesn’t that disconnect itself show that there may be no message that would be “compelling” enough? Meanwhile, Obama is already exploring a range of executive actions he can take to go around Congress — a course of action Fournier would presumably approve of.
Now, it may well be that Obama will prevail over GOP intransigence in the end. He may successfully peel off GOP Senators to support a deal to replace the sequester that includes new revenues and stimulus in exchange for spending cuts. Republicans may still end up passing immigration reform. If those things happen, it will be partly because Obama adopted some of the ideas Fournier and others have suggested, ultimately succeeding in making the continued refusal to compromise politically unsustainable. That’s what Obama is trying to do now.
If this bears fruit, pundits like Fournier will say: “See? Presidential leadership worked.” But if it doesn’t, they will blame … the failure of presidential leadership. In this context, there’s a reason pundit advice for Obama is often structured in the manner Fournier did here. If Obama continues to do the very things these pundits counsel him to do — and they fail to break the logjam — the pundit can continue to escape reckoning with the basic question at the heart of all of this. That question is this: Is there any display of presidential leadership — or any offer of concessions — that can persuade today’s Republican leaders and Tea Partyers to enter into a compromise in which they make what can reasonably be called meaningful concessions of their own? Rather than seriously engage this question, folks like Fournier can simply say: Obama didn’t do enough of all the things I suggested he do, or didn’t do them effectively enough.
As for Fournier’s “white flag” claim, no one is saying Obama and Dems should “quit” trying to win over Republicans. Instead, we’re saying there’s a reason Republicans almost certainly can’t be won over, and that this reason resides not in the failure of presidential persuasion but in basic realities about today’s GOP.
If anything, it’s punditry such as Fournier’s that constitutes a surrender of sorts. It’s not enough to claim Obama’s legacy will inevitably seen as a failure to overcome GOP intransigence (should that happen), because history isn’t fair. The question is, should that be the case, and would blaming Obama for failing to overcome it be a reasonable and accurate assessment? Fournier, in effect, is giving up on the pundit’s ability to engage this question forthrightly and directly, and by extension, on his ability to influence public and elite perceptions of what’s happening. Fournier regularly derides “partisans” on both sides of this argument. But the refusal to apportion blame accurately — when the facts plainly merit assigning it overwhelmingly to one side, and not the other — is itself a form of partisanship and bias that impairs judgment and, in the end, misleads readers.
* COMPROMISE ON TAX REFORM IS FAR AWAY: Related to the above: The New York Times reports that Obama’s call for tax reform is already being dismissed by Republicans, and faces long odds:
Mr. Obama ran into immediate Republican hostility to any tax plan that would generate additional revenue. “It looks to me like they’re deliberately undermining any chance for tax reform,” Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah, the ranking Republican on the Finance Committee, said of the administration’s proposal.
As always — see John Cornyn recently — any proposal that asks Republicans to make any concessions in exchange for concessions from Dems is inherently a nonstarter. This is what Dems are up against.
* BUT SOME GOP SENATORS OPEN TO BUDGET DEAL: The Hill reports that some GOP Senators are increasingly optimistic that some kind of deal can be reached to replace the sequester. As noted recently, the emergence of this Compromise Caucus — and Obama’s wooing of it — has stoked optimism among Dems, too, that ultimately a sizable bloc can be persuaded to break with the GOP leadership/Tea Party alliance. The question then will be what kind of pressure that exerts on the House.
* LINDSEY GRAHAM MAKES NICE NOISES ABOUT OBAMA TAX PROPOSAL: Related to the above, note the quotes Roll Call has from Senator Lindsey Graham, a member of the new Compromise Caucus:
“I support infrastructure spending as part of any deal, reducing the corporate tax rate is good but the big piece left out is entitlement reform,” Graham said. “I think what the president is talking about is helpful. … Having the conversation about restructuring the tax code, infrastructure, is moving in the right direction, but the big challenge for us is what do you do about long-term entitlements.”
Unfortunately, the Roll Call report also notes that the GOP leadership was united in its opposition.
* JANET YELLEN VERSUS LARRY SUMMERS: Paul Krugman comes very close to calling on Obama to pick Yellen over Summers as the next Fed chairman, noting that so doing would, in effect, amount to an acknowledgment that the political world has changed, that the Very Serious Centrists got everything wrong about the economy, and that picking a Very Serious Person won’t do a thing to win over Republicans in the grip of crank economic theories.
As noted here the other day, the liberal wing of the Senate Democratic caucus has coalesced behind Yellen, implicitly making it clear its distaste for Summers.
* PROGRESSIVES PLAN TO PRESSURE GOP DURING RECESS: The White House-allied Americans United for Change plans to use the recess to stage events and demonstrations at town hall meetings to pressure Republican lawmakers in their districts on issues from immigration to climate change. The goal, which includes recording lawmakers answering difficult questions, is designed to avoid ceding the organizational edge to the right, which caught Dems off guard and influenced the national debate over health care in 2009.
* REPUBLICAN LAWMAKERS CITE BOGUS OBAMACARE POLL: This is a good one: Glenn Kessler catches multiple Republican lawmakers citing a “poll” of small business attitudes towards Obamacare’s employer mandate, one sponsored by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, that turns out to be thoroughly bogus. When the poll is examined, here is what it actually found:
A Chamber spokeswoman, who declined to be identified, acknowledged that only 17 percent of the businesses surveyed said they would be affected by the employer mandate. Put another way, the poll found that 83 percent of small businesses surveyed said they would not be affected by an employer mandate that the Chamber of Commerce has said is a burden on small businesses.
One imagines we’ll never hear GOP lawmakers cite this poll again…
* AND TODAY’S PLUM READS:
Noam Scheiber ponders the various explanations for the continued GOP drive to repeal Obamacare, and how it has driven them to truly new levels of Sabotage Governing.
Dana Milbank weighs in on the GOP drive to shut down the government over Obamacare, and gets this great quote from Norm Ornstein:
“You could say it’s a do-nothing Congress but that doesn’t do justice to it. These guys are doing something, which is to destroy the economic fabric of the country by holding the functions of government hostage to a non-negotiable demand to eliminate Obamacare.”
Steve Benen on a new Congressional Research Service report that has placed an inconvient hurdle in the way of the GOP’s Obamacare/government shutdown scheme: Reality.