Henninger: Obama’s Ruinous Course
wise judge once wrote in dissent that the Constitution is not a suicide pact. Let us now extend that wisdom to presidential elections.
Barack Obama says his election victory is a mandate to pursue the policy course he’s insisting on in negotiations with Republicans on the fiscal cliff. He wants a tax increase of $1.6 trillion, $50 billion of new and immediate stimulus spending and the end of congressional approval to raise the ceiling on U.S. debt—the debt that a ratings agency downgraded in 2011.
The campaign stump speech in which Mr. Obama demanded that Congress cede him control over the debt ceiling slips my mind. But we all recall his repeated cries for increasing taxes on “the wealthiest” ($200,000 individual/$250,000 joint), so arguably he has a claim to that. Consequences do come with the democratic habit of holding elections.
But if that is true, then Republicans are justified in citing the consequences of the message of the midterm election held a mere two years ago. In 2010, the Republicans regained control of the House of Representatives. Less noted but as important in measuring the nation’s desires, that election gave the GOP control of the largest number of state legislatures it had held since 1928. A similar surge occurred for Republican governors.
Last time I looked, the progressive movement still hadn’t turned Washington, D.C., into the only political jurisdiction of consequence in the United States. The message of the 2010 election, for Republicans anyway, was unambiguous: Slow down the runaway public-spending train, the spending train that caused the nation’s voters to torch and punish Republicans in the 2006 midterms.
On the available evidence, a Republican who forgets those recent elections is headed for retirement. So naturally Barack Obama wants John Boehner and the Republicans in control of the House to forget those elections.
Bear in mind as we spend the holidays on this precipice, that the “fiscal cliff” wasn’t born yesterday. It crawled out of its crypt in late 2011, after the Republican leadership and Mr. Obama—the deficit-reduction “super committee”—failed to negotiate essentially the same deal they are failing to get done now.
The inability of this Congress and this president to compromise on anything, now or at any time in the past four years, is itself a problem worthy of some thought.
Here’s one thought: The main reason there isn’t, and may never be, a solution on the fiscal cliff is that Barack Obama doesn’t know how to do a political compromise. Where in his career did Barack Obama ever learn the art of the political deal? Nowhere.
Recall the famous Blair House summit he called early in 2010 amid the legislating over ObamaCare. Lamar Alexander, Tom Coburn, Paul Ryan and other Republicans talked about wonkish compromises. All of it, every single idea, blew right by the president. Naturally the legislation got zero GOP votes. A kid running for high-school president could have gotten more opposition votes than that.
Presidents, kings, queens, generals all have accomplished a modus vivendi with their opponents and mortal enemies. Until now. What deal of Clintonesque majesty has Barack Obama ever pulled off?
The fiscal-cliff negotiation is a train driven by an engineer who doesn’t know how to use the brake, doesn’t know where the brake is and doesn’t care. His idea of politics is giving campaign speeches outside Washington to assemble a Sandy of public sentiment that will blow congressional Republicans off the cliff.
Politics ain’t beanbag, but it also isn’t just about politics. While Barack Obama may think his election mandate includes the ruin of the Republican Party, Republicans seeking a strategy of self-preservation should assert their refusal to participate in the ruin of the nation. As it is, the fiscal cliff has degenerated into a familiar Beltway melodrama in which the media reduce the whole thing to which party gets shafted. As to the health of the gasping American economy, well, whatever.
Conventional wisdom holds that the sequester is a mindless anti-spending Godzilla. But the sequester, because it is set in legislative stone, possesses what Washington today lacks with the public: credibility.
The only issue on the cliff negotiation table held true by every serious person is that the entitlement crisis is going to crush the country. But nothing is dearer to this president than higher taxes on people defined by him as the wealthiest. If the president’s DNA prevents him from a compromise that also includes a sequester-strength commitment to disarming the entitlement bombs, much less discretionary spending, take the sequester. Better the fiscal cliff than pitching the American people over the bottomless entitlement cliff.
Liberal commentators like to cite Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill as a case study in political compromise. Barack Obama has become a case study of a president unable to compromise—with John Boehner or anyone else. The sense here is that as the cliff approaches, more people are beginning to understand this grim reality.
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A version of this article appeared December 6, 2012, on page A15 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Obama’s Ruinous Course.
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